For over 30 years the Labour Party could have only dreamed of the conference it has just held.
Labour has finally found its happy space; devoid of factional rivalries; bitter personality feuds or fundamental challenges from the party activists to the Parliamentary wing.
Delegates who were there for the fights of the 80s or even more recently the Cunliffe challenge in 2012, were left reminiscing about the bad old days.
Otherwise, the 400 or so who attended spent the weekend basking in the Whanganui sun and cheering and applauding their leadership with considerable enthusiasm.
This was not the Labour party we once knew.
Even so, the conference could easily have gone off the rails.
Lurking in the background all weekend was the allegations about sexual harassment involving a party worker in Jacinda Ardern’s office.
That led to the resignation of Party President, Nigel Haworth, and the appointment of Maria Dew QC to inquire into how the Party had handled the original allegations.
That report is due soon, and senior party officials appeared confident that it would mostly vindicate the way the Party had managed the allegations.
Nevertheless, Party Leader, Jacinda Ardern, sounded a warning in her opening speech on Friday night.
She said the Party needed to work harder to ensure the organisation was one where all members felt safe to participate.
“We should never be afraid to address problems when we face them,” she said.
“Now we may be a political organisation, but that should not be the lens through which we view issues that involve our Labour members.
“People first, politics second.”
The Party held a closed-door session led by Christchurch East MP Poto Williams who has a long professional history dealing with family violence and sexual assault issues.
In 2017, in Opposition, she proposed that sexual assault victims were believed as a starting point and that an accused would have to prove consent.
That idea was also apparently canvassed at her conference session with respect to complaints from within the Party.
The big casualty of the allegations has been President Nigel Haworth.
The contest to replace him threatened to cause more problems because the two leading candidates were a highly successful woman who was said to be a friend of Jacinda Ardern and a male Maori trade unionist.
The unionist, Tane Phillips, is Maori Vice President of the Party and Secretary of the Pulp and Paper Workers’ Union which is based in Kawerau and covers production workers at the mills there.
Phillips said the great passions of his life were his whanau, workers’ rights and the advancement of Māori.
“The great challenges we face as a nation, like housing, the future of work, and climate change and the protection of our awa, will be so much less difficult to address if we work together as Labour, as workers, and as Māori,” he said.
He was supported by the Maori caucus but possibly not by the union affiliates.
His union is not affiliated to the Party or the CTU.
The power of the affiliates was demonstrated by E Tu delegate and National Council member, Paul Tolich, who held 56 card votes.
Whanganui Mayor Hamish Douall (a cousin of Ardern) joked when opening the conference that delegates should spend the weekend enjoying his city and not worry about voting; just give your votes to Tolich, he suggested.
Ardern dismissed any suggestion that his defeat posed any problems for her in terms of relations with the Maori wing of the Party and she referred to an impromptu speech made from the conference floor by Nga Puhi elder, Rudi Taylor, who said the whole Party should get behind the new president, Claire Szabo.
Taylor later told POLITIK that Maori members of the Party had confidence in the seven Maori MPs.
“I think I’m encouraged to say we will stick together,” he said.
“Confidence goers with policies.
“What do policies do for us in Maoridom.
“I think we are doing a lot since Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister.
“And I’m confident we can build on that.”
Szabo’s election was greeted with cheers and applause from delegates.
She has a formidable CV; a degree in music from Auckland University; has postgraduate degrees in Education management (from Trinity College, Dublin); a Master of Commerce and Administration from Victoria University of Wellington and postgraduate qualifications in Public Administration from Harvard.
She is the daughter of Hungarian refugees and is CEO of Habitat for Humanity but she intends to resign that position as well as ruling herself out of standing for Parliament “for the foreseeable future.”
Though the Dew report may not call for any drastic action by the Party, it is likely to provoke an administrative shakeup which she will need to preside over.
And Szabo hinted that change could be on the way.
“I think in any organisation there are things that can be improved,” she said.
But the conference was also a platform for Ardern, her senior Ministers and the Government as a whole to project itself out to New Zealand.
And they did that with the announcement of the intention to borrow more for infrastructure.
In a way, it’s been a long time coming with both business and the Reserve Bank calling for the Government to take advantage of low-interest rates to borrow for infrastructure to counter the economic slowdown.
Chief executives polled in September for the Herald “Mood of the Boardroom” survey called for more borrowing to fund infrastructure, and Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr has been making similar calls all year.
As Orr runs out of room to lower interest rates to provide monetary stimulus to the economy, he needs the Government to spend more to provide that stimulus.
And though Robertson says he has not spoken to Orr, he has clearly heard the message from the Bank.
Orr left any call for increased borrowing out of the November 13 Monetary Policy Statement.
“You don’t have to keep shouting, you know,” he told the MPS media conference.
“To the extent that it’s been repeated many, many times in the press I imagine that it’s being heard.
Asked whether he thought his move might reduce pressure on the Bank to keep lowering interest rates, Robertson said that was a decision for the Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank.
“But I repeat, monetary and fiscal policy need to be friends,” he said.
he also defended the Government’s spending record saying that both the operating allowance and capital allowance had been increased significantly in Budget 2019.
“And we increased the capital investment allowance by about 10 billion dollars over what the previous Government had planned.”
Robertson gave no details of how much be proposed to increase borrowing; that will come with the Budget Policy Statement later this month.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister and Education Minister Chris Hipkins have unveiled a $396 million programme to bring forward urgent school property improvements.
But that will be likely to be small beer alongside what Robertson will announce in the Budget Policy Statement.
Last month the Infrastructure Commission updated its projects pipeline and said the value of projects on it was $21 billion.
These range from prisons and hospitals to road and rail projects.
But Ardern was keen yesterday to emphasise that the schools’ money would be flowing into the economy almost instantaneously pointing to the importance the Government places on the project insulating the economy from a downturn.
Though National was bagging Robertson’s announcement yesterday, the Party’s Finance spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, proposed exactly the same thing back in August.
“I don’t think we should be ramping up debt significantly, given all the uncertainty there is at the moment,” he told the website interest,.co.nz.
“But having said that, if there are good opportunities to spend money on infrastructure, we’re open for that.”
That maybe defines this weekend’s conference as much as anything else. This was not a conference that strayed very far from the political centre.
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