The leadership characteristic that shall not be named

David Cunliffe formally resigns today, setting up a head-to-head battle between him and Grant Robertson, although there’s still a chance that David Shearer, Andrew Little and/or Stuart Nash might throw their hat(s) into the ring.

As the Labour MPs arrived for the resignation caucus, Little refused to rule himself out, instead repeating the line that he needed to wait for the special votes to be counted, to see whether he was even going to be returned to Parliament. Likewise, Nash too was refusing to rule himself out, despite apparently having been told by fellow MPs that he didn’t have the numbers in caucus for either leader or deputy.

The last leadership ballot was largely a genial, gentlemanly sort of event. Cunliffe, Robertson and Shane Jones toured the country, trading wisecracks and generally attempting to prove just how staunchly left-wing they could suddenly be. This time around, the whole enterprise is likely to be a rather murkier affair.

Robertson, on The Nation over the weekend, has already put the boot into Cunliffe, highlighting Cunliffe’s leadership mistakes, while Cunliffe has slapped back, attacking the lack of broad appeal of beltway politicians.

Where things are going to get really nasty though is the issue of Grant Robertson’s sexuality. David Cunliffe’s supporters want Robertson’s sexuality to be an ongoing topic of conversation. The idea is that if enough people are asking whether South Auckland voters will vote for a gay Prime Ministerial candidate, the seeds of doubt amongst the membership will help get Cunliffe over the line.

No one actually wants to come right out and say it though. Yesterday afternoon, on National Radio’s The Panel, everyone could contentedly assert that it wasn’t a problem for them personally, but for others, well, who knows?

The unspoken assumption is that to be New Zealand’s Prime Minister, you must be straight. Here’s Su’a William Sio’s comment (via Laura McQuillan’s Twitter account) as he arrived for Labour’s caucus meeting this morning:

Robertson’s sexuality “never came up” at Mangere LEC but there are “characteristics” that influence leadership support.

And:

Sio warns leadership contenders (ie Robertson) will be under scrutiny from Pasifika voters for “their personal and private characteristics”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out which of Robertson’s “characteristics” Sio and his Mangere electorate committee find so distressing…

Then there’s this reporting by Andrea Vance of “[o]ne community leader, who did not want to be named”:

Robertson’s homosexuality clashed with socially conservative attitudes of voters, who would turn instead to NZ First, he said.

‘‘If Labour want to go from 24 [per cent] to 14 and put NZ First from 10 to 19, that’s the way to go. He won’t unify the party. He will destroy the South Auckland power base, that three Ms [Mangere, Manukau East and Manurewa electorates]. It’s not so much Grant, it’s what aligns with their beliefs … it will probably be a tipping point.’’

In the end, few will come right out and say it, “We need the homophobe vote, so Grant Robertson just won’t do”. In fact, just like the unnamed community leader, few will even want their names associated with their own more toned down concerns. Nonetheless, the whispering campaign will continue, Robertson will be asked in every second interview whether his sexuality will make a difference, and he’ll give yet another variant of his answer about how he also likes rugby and beer.

Robertson might also like to point out that West Auckland voters elected and re-elected the openly gay Chris Carter from 1993 to 2008, while Louisa Wall easily held her South Auckland seat of Manurewa.

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