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If Chris Carter’s recent trip to Tibet was in search of spiritual enlightenment, he will have come back with a ready explanation for his current problems: bad karma. There can hardly have been a more blatant case of self-inflicted damage to a political career. The state of Phil Goff’s leadership is almost irrelevant to the way Carter has behaved. If Labour can’t win the next election, it can at least lose as narrowly as possible, and thereby hope to build for the future – yet Carter’s desperate, vindictive anonymous letter sought to deny his party and his colleagues even that option.
Expelling Carter is the only route open to the Labour caucus – but unfortunately for Goff, Carter will live on inside Parliament as a ghostly harbinger of Labour’s likely fate at the next election. One can speculate about what on earth Carter was thinking when he responded as he did over his Ministerial spending on overseas trips and then – having being given a last chance – apparently chose to defy the need to get caucus approval for his next overseas trip. Seen in that light, the anonymous letter looks like nothing more than a last, petty attempt to do as much damage as possible before being kicked out of caucus.
Primarily, the Carter episode is a tale of one man’s lack of self control. It also seems like the last residue of the sense of entitlement that proved so damaging to the last Labour government. Both major parties suffer from their own version of the ‘born to rule’ syndrome – and Labour’s version takes the form of a self righteousness and moral certitude that can rationalize almost anything (even its own compromises and sell-outs) as being for the long run good of the party and the country. In a tribal sense, Labour is always right even when its wrong, and Carter seems to have been prone to the same twisted logic. That way, he could believe his own spin that he was entitled to those overseas trips and to those levels of spending – and that Phil Goff, having failed so completely to restore Labour’s fortunes, had no moral authority to be chastising him.
Putting the personalities aside for a moment, its an interesting question – if you’re en route to Custer’s Last Stand, do you shoot at the Indians who surround you in overwhelming numbers, or do you shoot at Custer for getting you into this? Carter has made his own decision pretty clear on that one – shoot the leader – and that’s where the analogy breaks down. Because all of the senior members of the Labour caucus – including Chris Carter – are responsible for where Labour is today, and every time that Carter turns his fire inwards, he only serves to remind the public about why they voted Labour out at the last election. If Goff can’t turn those public perceptions around – and at this point, he clearly can’t – the only alternative to gritting your teeth and soldiering on would be if an alternative existed. Inside caucus, David Cunliffe would the only remotely viable contender, and that alarming prospect only underlines the fact that Goff is still the only option. Labour soldiered on in the mid 1970s with a plainly inadequate leader. It can survive doing it again.
Some optimists within Labour ranks see EPMU boss and party president Andrew Little as the cavalry coming over the horizon to save the day. A few weeks ago, Little announced his intention to seek the New Plymouth seat at the next election. Winning that seat would strengthen his hand, but if Little has to enter Parliament on the list well…lets just say it wouldn’t be the ideal launching pad for any further ambitions he might have.
In any case, Little is no David Lange when it comes to having electoral appeal beyond Labour ranks – there is no discernible X Factor – so if Goff doesn’t lose by an embarrassing margin next year, there would be no immediate need for him to fall on his sword. A mid term transfer to Little seems more likely – though by then, if the public was finally starting to become disenchanted with the Key government, Goff could still harbour hopes of hanging on, in much the same way that Bill Rowling did to experience successive defeats in 1975, 1978 and 1981 before being rolled.
An opportunity is going begging, in the meantime. The galling thing for Labour is that there is no real public appetite and enthusiasm for the agenda that the Key government is promoting. If there was an even half-way attractive alternative, the public would be very likely to consider it – especially once the tax package/multiple price rises kick in later this year. Right now though, Labour is an electoral void. For that reason, Chris Carter’s verdict on Phil Goff seems bound to resonate for a long time after the petty vindictive reasons for expressing it have been forgotten.