Labour: perhaps the end of the beginning

There is a tactical reason and a strategic reason why Labour will keep hope alive at its conference this coming weekend. The tactical reason is John Key. The strategic reason is its backroom work.

Now and then Key miscues. There are gaps in his knowledge of politics, of this nation and of what being Prime Minister entails.

Paul Henry was a miscue born of the second and third gaps.

Key has a prime ministerial duty to uphold the dignity of the office of the head of state. Henry’s implying that the broad-Kiwi-accented incumbent is not a New Zealander because the wrong shade of brown demeans the office.

Nor could Key, charged with unifying a multicultural society, see that a colour-based comment is racist. He put it down to Henry being a shock-jock, as if a state broadcaster properly fronts a news programme with a shocker, who last week won the country a diplomatic rocket from a huge country Tim Groser is trying to woo into a free trade agreement. PR person Andi Brotherston’s automatic defence of Henry represented, too well, the state broadcaster’s culture.

Key also told the his post-cabinet press conference the Governor-General could refuse to sign Canterbury recovery Orders-in-Council. Technically, yes, but constitutionally he must take the Prime Minister’s “advice”. Key might usefully climb a floor in the Beehive for a tutorial from Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge.

No worries, mate. Key is 99 per cent a likeable unifier and tension-soother. His ministers accord him great respect and liking. He still looks a shoo-in next election.

But miscues allow Labour, distantly trailing in polls, a small lift in morale which translates into more energy and better foundation-building.

So, while there is general realism in the party that a win next year is a very long reach, there is also a growing belief Labour won’t crash either.

That is bolstered by a belief that the policy pendulum is swinging back, helped by fallout from the GFC (great financial crash) and the failure of light-handed regulation.

MPs have been developing six “frameworks” and a number of other policy documents, drawing on outsiders as well as party supporters. The “frameworks” and a range of other policy items will be test-driven this weekend at open workshops and “new thinking” debates, then firmed into election policy. Some other topics will be canvassed at “fringe” meetings.

We will see at the weekend whether the “frameworks” amount to imaginative and fresh enough rethinking on which to base policy that can still be relevant in 2020 (the sort that Phil Goff’s gimmicky GST off fresh fruit and vegetables, opposed by some MPs, is not).

One which may qualify is Annette King’s use of an outside “commission” to rebase social policy on intervening in early childhood to avert expensive remediation or incarceration later. Instead of a child segment in the health, education, housing and welfare policies, those policies will grow out of this child-based policy. From among her advisers, academics Richie Poulton, David and Liz Craig and former Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro will figure at the conference. (Poulton is also on Sir Peter Gluckman’s group tackling this issue and on Anne Tolley’s early childhood education inquiry.)

Ruth Dyson took a cue from King and ran two day-long forums to canvass academic, professional and lobby group outsiders and unions. Her 2020 challenge is affordability, which she says can be met only by shifting the focus more heavily on to prevention and disease prevention. She has yet to produce a “framework”.

Economic debates will feature economist Ganesh Nana and journalist Bernard Hickey. The economic rethink draws on post-GFC writing searching for the “new normal”. One insider says: “The world economic order is changing, so policy platforms are changing, particularly in the developed world. Things that were out of bounds are now back in play. That gives an opportunity to flash ideas around old and new.”

Other “frameworks” cover the environment (pushing a “low-pollution economy”), employment law, justice and education. Other policy areas for debate include water, republicanism, open government and voting at 16.

There will be a “corporate event” at which the New Zealand Institute’s Rick Boven, Goff, president Andrew Little, David Cunliffe, Lianne Dalziel and Shane Jones will speak. Former president Mike Williams is advising on fundraising. Party funds are still a bit short.

Add to that a completed electorate selection round by end-2010.

Result: the party is making a faster recovery than after its 1990 defeat and than National did after 1999.

It is only the end of the beginning, as Winston Churchill once said — but a marker on the long haul to the beginning of the end of exile.

* On September 30 I said the median wage was about $46,860 in June. That was median household earned income. Statistics issued last week put median individual earned income close to $40,000. The net tax switch is close to $11 a week.