What went wrong?

Phil Goff had looked strong on Monday with his demotions, and has wisely decided to save the promotions for the next day, so he would stay in the news cycle for an extra day. It was a good strategy, but one in tatters by the end of the day after Chris Carter went rogue.

I think there are some lessons to be learnt from this for Labour, as in my view yesterday was avoidable. This isn’t putting the boot in, but genuine advice.

When dealing with stuff such as demotions or sackings, you don’t leave things to chance. The master of this was Alastair Campbell who would turn up to a Minister’s office with their letter of resignation.

A senior staff member who has the undisputed authority of the leader should have been dispatched to each person being demoted, and talked them through what was going to happen, write their press release for them, and also advise them on what media they should front for and not front for.

This advice should have included that you need to front up on the way into caucus, and basically what words of regret they should use. This may sound over the top, but this is how the professionals do it. By working this out in advance you avoid the fiascos like yesterday. If the demoted MP refuses to follow script, then you know this quietly in advance, and can send the Leader in to insist.

This comes back to a problem that I believe Phil Goff’s office has – no chief of staff. This is no denigration of the three or four senior staff who report to Goff – they are all competent in their areas, but it is widely chatted around Parliament that the lack of one overall boss is an issue, as things do fall through the cracks.

A chief of staff is exactly who you need to deal with the demotions of the last two days. Anyone less, and the MP may refuse to accept they are speaking on behalf of the leader.

I’ve worked in both a PM’s office with and without a chief of staff and also an Opposition Leader’s office with and without a chief of staff.  No matter how good the calibre of the senior staff, things never work that well without a chief of staff. They don’t have to be a Heather Simpson like figure, if that is the resistance to having one. Other Chiefs of Staff have been quite proficient, without having a 20 meter zone of fear around them.

If Phil Goff wants to be Prime Minister, he has to look like he can run the country. A sub-set of that is he first has to look like he can run his own caucus.

With some reluctance, I think he really does need to demote Chris Carter all the way now. The fact is that Chris has yet to face up to the media and in any way accept he made some bad decisions. And his resistance to doing so is now so well entrenched with the public, that any attempt to now do so will look like too little too late.

I say with some reluctance, because on a personal level I have always liked Chris Carter. He was good mates with one of my best mates, and so I got to know him quite well. He had a great, very mischievous sense of humour, and had great political instincts. I always found him to be a nice guy – with the usual caveat I don’t agree with his policies.

In 1996 I was actually hoping he would win Waipareira against Brian Neeson, because Neeson’s views on various issues were too extreme for me. No I don’t always back the National candidate. In fact almost every election there have been one or two seats which has me quietly supporting the Labour candidate.

It seems clear to me that Chris’ political instincts have been eroded since becoming a Minister. It happens to a fair few MPs – his case just seems quite extreme. He can’t see the forest for the trees. He looks at each of his overseas trips and thinks I can justify them on a case by case basis – rather than look at the totality of his travelling and spending and asking whether it looks excessive.

Chris is now in a position where Goff could further demote him without push back from his caucus. There is some genuine anger within Labour over what happened yesterday – it was meant to be the day that they got positive headlines over the promotions of future cabinet ministers such as Chauvel and Robertson.

So why won’t Goff treat Carter the same as he treated Shane Jones (who has fronted up and shown genuine contrition)? My best guess is because Chris has threatened to quit Parliament and cause a by-election.

I’m not sure how credible such a threat would be. But even if it is credible, then you have to wonder why does that stop Phil Goff from doing what is obviously now needed?

The logical answer is that Phil is worried Labour would lose the by-election to National. While they won the electorate vote by 5,000 or so votes, they actually were second in the party vote.

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