Send for The Wolf

(Hoping, but without any confidence, that this will be my last post on the Carter debacle).

About six weeks ago Brian Edwards observed that Labour was its own worst enemy as far as the Chris Carter debacle went. As usual, he was dead right then, and that advice is still right now, with one rather chilling update: the incompetence which saw the parliamentary Labour party keep putting Carter and his misdeeds back on the media agenda at a time when they ought to have been making mileage at the government’s expense is shared by the wider party organisation. The Dom-Post this morning indicate some vagueness about Carter’s future status in the party, while two items on Morning Report (both audio) clearly indicate that Carter’s expulsion from the party on 7 August is far from assured, and that this debacle is likely to carry on well beyond that meeting.

For one thing, August 7 is already too late. Chris Carter, and by extension the Labour party’s rusted-on uselessness and venality, has now been a central topic of domestic political news for at least four of the past eight weeks, and has been utterly dominant throughout fully two of those weeks. A government can’t buy coverage like that, but Labour have packaged it up with a little red bow and delivered it to them post-paid. With the latest events, Carter’s expulsion from the party and a campaign to refocus the political media agenda on more substantive topics — like the mining backdown, 90-day bill, ACC reforms and National Standards — ought to have been undertaken with urgency. This need not rule out adherence to the principles of “natural justice” to which Andrew Little refers; these are compatible with a swift and decisive resolution in a healthy organisation with robust organisational structures, strong networks of competent people, and a shared commitment to the wellbeing of the party.

This is not really a matter of the public interest except inasmuch as Labour permits it to be. Labour needs a fixer, like Pulp Fiction‘s Winston Wolfe — an independent, dispassionate individual whose only interest is in resolving the issue quickly and quietly, and who has the mandate, ability and authority to get the damned job done. They needed to cauterise this wound back in June, and the need to do so now is all the more urgent. Further delay risks infection. That they have failed or refused to engage such a fixer shows an absence of nerve on the part of both the parliamentary and the organisational leadership and suggests that modern Labour is not, in fact, a healthy organisation with robust organisational structures, strong networks of competent people, and a shared commitment to the wellbeing of the party. And that is a matter of the public interest, because a strong opposition is fundamental to democracy and the health of the country.

Edit: I should add, if it’s not abundantly clear from the content of this post, that I disagree with Brian’s apparent endorsement (in his latest on the topic) of a “compassionate” response by Labour. While I have sympathy for Carter’s position, withstanding public and media criticism, however unjustified, without going off the deep end is a requirement of the job. In the words of a great (and recently returned!) former All Black captain: it’s not tiddlywinks. It may well be down to a choice between Carter’s wellbeing or that of the party, but Carter chose to throw himself upon the wheel, and whatever wounds he suffers as a consequence I consider to be self-inflicted.


21 thoughts on “Send for The Wolf

  1. Labour used to have a couple of fixers – Mike Williams and Heather Simpson.

  2. I fully agree, as H2 ( Heather Simpson ) seems to fulfilled that role previously. As always, ” you can’t fix stupid “, so every party will have some people that will misbehave and become media cannon fodder, despite best efforts of “fixers”.

    Over the past 12 months Labour has forsaken any chance of winning next year. Even if John Key left National, they would still win. By failing to address obvious electorate disenchantment with their past and current behaviour, Labour are now starting to risk the following election as well.

  3. Over the past 12 months Labour has forsaken any chance of winning next year. Even if John Key left National, they would still win. By failing to address obvious electorate disenchantment with their past and current behaviour, Labour are now starting to risk the following election as well.

    Labour still don’t have the humility they need to look over their faults and purge them with extreme prejudice.

    When the economy is collapsing, and the Government is incompetent, they should be doing a lot better than this.

  4. I agree with the post lew and although I wish that they would sort this out quick – i suspect it’s a bit of a bleeder. I see many parallels with the Gulf Oil disaster and the BP handling of it.

    I am concerned about the lack of succession planning going on in labour – sure it is politics and the evasiveness of declaring any ambition, but i’d expect there to be some nodding going on.

    Labour have given up on the next election IMO.

  5. With Waitakere now in National’s hands, Te Atatu is now Labour’s northern-most outpost. Everything North, East and West belongs to National.

    This is a seat that is up for grabs, and both Labour and National need bold candidates, rather than taking electorate for granted.

  6. It turns out Carter is un-sackable.

    This is not your last Carter-post, Lew, not even close.

    This particular albatross is also a boomerang.

  7. Chris Carter’s actions are a breath of fresh air in an era of tightly managed top-to-bottom electoral managerialism.

    The real reason why Goff backed down is that he realized that the vast majority of Labour Party activists and grassroots support Carter in this.

  8. I suppose we’ll see about that. One of many things which counterindicate is that Carter’s own self-appointed support group evidently includes nobody able to spell the word ‘courageous’.


  9. It is symptomatic of how out of touch many in the media-political echo-chamber are from the realities of life in New Zealand that Brian Edwards would dare to describe Mr. Carter’s recent life as a “purgatory”.

    Purgatory? really? On $120K PA plus allowances including a unlimited 90% travel discount and with no requirement to turn up for work? Oh, that I may be subjected to such purgatory!

  10. I dunno, Lew. One could argue that giving the sort of authority you describe to somebody without any ideological motives, only practical ones, would lead to the kind of managerialism which ground British Labour into the dirt. You’re effectively calling for an Alistair Campbell, and we all know how people feel about Alistair Campbell.

    And really, given that it seems Carter has some support from within the party, you could argue that treating him as a technical rather than policy or ideological problem would be anti-democratic.

  11. Winston Wolfe was a criminal (albeit a fictional one) and that makes a big difference, Lew. Criminals can kill their enemies.

    There was a time when political leaders wielded the same sort of power. Had Chris Carter done what he did in Tudor England he would now be in the Tower facing torture and the all-too-real prospect of being hung, drawn and quartered.

    What do you suggest we do in democratic New Zealand? Carter has committed no crime, he has merely breached Caucus discipline – and he’s paid the inevitable price for that.

    What more would you suggest that Labour do? Expel him?

    Not so easy, Lew.

    Labour’s constitution requires that anyone charged with an expellable offence has the right to be treated with natural justice. Fail to abide by the rules of natural justice and lawyers like Claudia Elliot and Deborah Manning will have you in front of a judge before you can say – “due process”.

    I sat on the NZ Council of the Labour Party when there was a real prospect of expelling Richard Prebble for refusing to abide by the Party’s constitution.

    He injuncted the whole Council.

    Even if you were successful, and Carter was thrown out, he would still be out there, just waiting for the Leighton Smith’s and the Michael Laws of this world to pick up the phone – which they would do the moment Labour appeared to be making any traction.

    As a lone wolf, Carter would also become the perfect conduit for genuine discontent. Goff’s rivals could feed him all kinds of damaging – but accurate – gossip and information. He would become the news media’s most reliable source.

    No, I’m afraid hugging him tight is by the far the best solution.

    In the words of the old political adage: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”

  12. Hugh and Chris, dear me, I’m not suggesting a concrete gumboot solution, or anything so cinematic. The point of a fixer in this context is to make the problem go away (or ensure it is dealt with appropriately), not to make Chris Carter go away.

    I’m cognisant of the risks Carter poses if permitted to remain disgruntled. The object should be to find a solution which will persuade him to quietly piss off and buy a vineyard someplace; and for this to be agreed to by Carter so that the prospect of a due process battle is obviated (I agree that such a battle would be possibly the only worse thing which could happen).

    I think the Labour party hold a few unplayed cards here. Carter’s credibility hinges on the fiction that he has the best interests of the party at heart. This is the rock on which he is presently trying to build his legacy. But the only people who genuinely believe that (possibly apart from Carter and those very close to him) are those who will take any opportunity to attack Phil Goff and Labour, and in general I believe they are doing so more for political convenience than out of a genuine belief in Chris’ cause. It is a brittle pretext and can be easily attacked, since it’s obvious to anyone that Carter’s actions have been hugely damaging to the party as well as to Goff, and that his cynical adoption of the “woe is me” position of illness is a naked ploy to prolong the party’s agony.

    Whatever happens it will be costly for Labour, but better that it be immediately costly and then finished than that it drag on. These people are politicians: negotiation, compromise, back-scratching and quid-pro-quo is what they do (or what they ought to be able to do).


  13. Ah, Lew, you’re mistaking politicians for statesmen. The last Labour statesman we had was Norm Kirk – we’re still waiting for the next.

  14. Lew, I wasn’t thinking you were arguing for doing something nasty to Carter personally – ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘criminal’ aren’t the same thing. The problem is, Carter isn’t amenable to buy-offs, so only coercion can be used against him, and coercion is likely to cause pushback.

    To me the most nefarious part of Carter’s stance is simply that he is advocating a chance of leadership without advocating who it is he thinks should replace Goff. ‘Anybody but that guy’ is not a tenable position to hold. At this rate I almost wonder if he’s planning to run for the Labour leadership himself.

  15. I have a feeling the good people of Te Atatu will decide Carter’s fate if Labour find themselves neutered. Really the choice for Labour is: Sack Carter and lose some dosh (in court); or Keep Carter and lose the seat.

  16. Brian Edwards:

    “It’s probably hopeless to expect to be believed by such closed-minded bigots, but I am telling you that Carter is not malingering, that he is under close medical supervision, that he is suffering from chronic and disabling depression and that he needs at least 8 weeks to recover.”

    If this is the truth, then Labour are going to have to walk a tight-rope to get rid of Carter, and still meet the requirements of “natural justice”.

  17. Hugh, I don’t think bringing in an external negotiator to resolve an internal conflict in the best interests of the party need be anti-democratic, just as it need not conflict with the requirements of natural justice. It does need to be handled carefully, which is why leaving it in the hands of the parliamentary and organisation leadership was always going to fail: they have too much skin in the game to be objective.

    TO a certain extent this relies on Carter being rational, of course. I’m inclined to agree with Brian Edwards’ assessment of his state, but this also doesn’t mean he’s irrational beyond negotiation. Just need to negotiate on the right grounds.

  18. Ah, well that I agree with Lew, but I guess when you raised the metaphor of Winston Wolf, ‘negotiator’ is not what springs to mind. Wolf doesn’t negotiate – he swoops in and gives orders. Perhaps one of those Star Trek Betazoids is a better model.

    As for Carter’s mental state, frankly, I’m not inclined to speculate on the mental state of anybody I don’t know personally. It’s tempting to just brush it aside as political maneuvering – I don’t doubt the stress is wearing Carter down, but to be frank, outside of Nick Smith it’s almost utterly unknown for politicians to plead a need for stress leave despite the fact it’d probably be easier to list the MPs who couldn’t benefit from it. But it seems this is pretty strategic – I’m sure we have in the past listened to policy ideas from people who were stressed out of their minds, so the idea that right now we should stop doing though seems disingenuous on Goff’s part.

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