David Parker

Terrible Labour leadership numbers

Labour now has a new leader – Andrew Little. I’d expected him to win, purely due to union support. Which is basically what ended up happening.

Here’s a round-by-round break-down:

Caucus:

  • Round 1: Robertson – 14, Parker – 7, Mahuta – 6, Little – 5
  • Round 2: Robertson – 14, Little – 11, Parker – 7
  • Round 3: Robertson – 18, Little – 14

Members:

  • Round 1: Robertson – 38%, Little – 26%, Parker – 22%, Mahuta – 14%
  • Round 2: Robertson – 41%, Little – 34%, Parker – 25%
  • Round 3: Robertson – 55%, Little – 45%

Affiliates:

  • Round 1: Little – 64%, Robertson – 19%, Mahuta – 10%, Parker – 7%
  • Round 2: Little – 71%, Robertson 20%, Parker – 9%
  • Round 3: Little – 76%, Robertson – 24%

That means that in the final round, Little beat Grant Roberston by just 1%: 50.5% to 49.5%.

But just look at those round-by-round numbers – they make for terrible reading. For a start, Little comprehensively lost to Robertson in both the caucus and membership votes. Robertson was the most popular candidate in all three rounds for both the caucus and member voters. Andrew Little is now the party leader simply because he’s the former head of the EPMU, and the unions therefore overwhelmingly sided with him.

Little came dead last in the caucus vote in the first round. Just four other MPs (assuming Little voted for himself) thought that Little was the best choice. (It’s certainly a win for the Maori caucus though – all of Nanaia Mahuta’s caucus supporters second-preferenced Little. If just one had gone with Robertson instead, Robertson would have been leader. Andrew Little owes the Maori caucus big-time.)

Robertson maintained a consistent lead of about 10% over Little among the members in each of the three rounds.

Last leadership contest, the members got their way in the face of caucus opposition. That didn’t end well. This time round, neither the caucus nor the members got their way. Instead, the new leader is beholden to the unions.

Can the Labour caucus pull in behind Little? Or will we be in for yet another round of ‘White Ant the Leader’? How long will Labour be allowed to poll in the 20s before the whispering begins?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, National will have a field day, happily painting Little as a union apparatchik, unwanted by the members, unwanted by his own caucus.

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Like a cult…

When a party loses badly, the public expects a bit of sorrowful wailing and beating of breasts. To say “This is what we did wrong, and this is how we’ll fix it” is an important part of restoring trust with the electorate. David Cunliffe didn’t appear to appreciate that, which contributed to the demise of his leadership aspirations. The remaining candidates certainly have accepted the need for a show of party penitence. There have been promises of full-scale policy review, and greater listening to the public (whatever that may mean).

David Parker has taken the penitence to a new level, saying that Labour occasionally “almost feels like a cult” and that it must look at its branding, including its use of the colour red.

Quite what Mr Parker was intending with his comments is a mystery. It’s all very well to get the public on side with a show of remorse for the electoral beating Labour has just suffered, but describing your party as “like a cult” hardly seems likely to foster a feeling of public affection.

Further, Mr Parker is still engaged in a contest in which the membership will vote. And publicly describing the party as “like a cult” seems rather like a direct attack on the membership. Likening the activist base and general party hierarchy to a collection of close-minded, intolerant fundamentalists strikes me as a terrible way to endear oneself to a group that will make up 40% of the votes in the leadership contest.

Mr Parker has certainly never been the front-runner in the leadership race, but his comments will likely have made the road ahead even harder for him.

Cunliffe bows out

David Cunliffe has pulled out of Labour’s leadership race, and in doing so, he’s given Grant Robertson and David Parker a two-fingered salute by way of an endorsement of Andrew Little.

Following The Nation‘s interview with David Shearer over the weekend, Cunliffe’s attempt to regain the leadership had become completely untenable. Shearer’s comments about struggling to get through the working day because he had to support Cunliffe as leader were an epic declaration of war. Shearer was essentially saying that he and other senior Labour MPs could not and would not support Cunliffe if he were re-elected to the leadership. Cunliffe had no choice but to bow out, for the good of the party.

Yesterday, with Parker’s entry into the race, I would have thrown my hands in the air and given up on attempting to pick a front runner. Now, the front-runner is back to being Little. Andrew Little will undoubtedly have the over-whelming union vote, possibly higher than the 70% level of support that Cunliffe reached in last year’s contest. Additionally, Cunliffe’s caucus supporters will undoubtedly pull in behind Little, which, in conjunction with Little’s own supporters, should give him an initial base of around a third of the caucus.

If Robertson and Parker largely split the remaining caucus vote between them, and neither picks up much of the union vote, it’s hard to see how Andrew Little will be anything but ahead in the first round. However, if Little can’t get a majority victory in the first round, things will get interesting. How much of Robertson or Parker’s (whichever drops out first) caucus support will go Little’s way? Does the ABC faction’s distaste for Cunliffe go so far as to a refusal to support whoever he attempts to anoint (ie. Little)? And which way will the membership jump?

Grant Robertson really doesn’t seem to excite much support out in the wider party. But then, it is a little difficult to get excited by career politicians. The problem is that neither Parker nor Little seem to attract much excitement either. They’re solid and intelligent, but hardly charismatic. Andrew Little certainly struggled to shine on The Nation over the weekend, even attracting unfavourable comparisons to David Shearer’s legendary inarticulateness during his time as leader.

Nonetheless, I’ve suggested before that Labour doesn’t necessarily need a wildly charismatic leader if wants to get back into contention by 2017. It needs stability, and it needs a leader that New Zealanders feel they can trust. Cunliffe wasn’t that leader, but either Parker or Little could be. The first task will be mending the breach between MPs and the wider party, and that’s the most fundamental argument against Robertson, in that he was seen as the ABC’s choice to spearhead the fight against Cunliffe.

And now, with nominations closing tomorrow, we wait to see whether David Shearer decides to have another shot, and further complicates the maths…

What effect will Andrew Little have on the leadership race?

In 2013, David Cunliffe won the Labour leadership contest in the first round, winning 51.15% of the total vote. Second preferences weren’t needed. Despite winning just over 32% of the caucus vote, Cunliffe blitzed the field in the membership vote (60.14%) and union vote (70.77%). Grant Robertson came in a distant second, with just short of 33% of the total vote, while Shane Jones limped home in third with almost 16%.

Jones was never a serious contender. It was an ego boost for him, as well as being a form of post-porn redemption. Andrew Little’s candidacy though is a different sort of beast. Whereas Jones was largely despised by the unions (picking up only around 12% of the union vote), Little – as a former EPMU secretary – has serious union street cred. Likewise, where Jones was distrusted by a significant portion of the party membership – seen as a sort of closet National sympathiser – Little has solid left credentials, offset perhaps by a somewhat humourless reputation and an inability to win an electorate seat.

So what does that mean for the leadership race? Firstly, it means that Cunliffe is highly unlikely to hold his 2013 membership and union voting base.  A portion was already likely to have deserted him, thanks to the terrible 2014 election campaign, but that portion is likely to now significantly increase, to Little’s benefit.

The pro-Little effect is likely to most significant in the union vote, which makes up 20% of the total. Little’s former union, the EPMU, is the strongest of the six affiliated unions, making up around 40% of the total union vote. Cunliffe received 71.43% of the EPMU vote last time; this time round, it would be extremely surprising if they didn’t break heavily for Little. That’s just shy of 8% of the total vote already in Little’s camp, largely from Cunliffe’s side of the ledger.

That means that it’s highly unlikely that any of the three candidates are going to win the leadership without going to preferences. So, who’s most likely to drop out first? If it’s Cunliffe or Robertson, you can be sure that most of their supporters’ second preferences would be for Little, as the compromise candidate. That would likely be enough to hand Little the leadership. If Little drops out first though, Robertson will likely be leader.

Let’s play with some (admittedly rough and ready) numbers:

  • At present, it sounds like Cunliffe has the support of about a quarter of the caucus, while Robertson has about half. So let’s use those proportions and give Little the remaining quarter.
  • And let’s assume that Robertson slightly grows his share of the membership vote to 30%, while Little grabs 30% and Cunliffe maintains an edge with 40%.
  • And let’s further assume that the EPMU largely votes Little, while Robertson holds his share of the remaining five unions, and Little and Cunliffe split the remainder about half and half between them. That gives Little about 60% of the total union vote, with Cunliffe on 30% and Robertson on 10%.

All up, that gives both Robertson and Little a total of 34%, while Cunliffe is only marginally behind on 32%. It’s a close race, but Cunliffe would drop out, making Little the likely victor on preferences.

It wouldn’t take much for the result to go in a rather different direction. For instance, if the unions didn’t break quite as heavily for Little, giving him 50% rather than 60%, and that 10% stayed with Cunliffe, suddenly both Cunliffe and Robertson would be sitting together on 34%, while Little would come third on 32%.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to say how much Cunliffe’s support amongst the membership and unions has been damaged by the 2014 election campaign. Labour’s former president Mike Williams told National Radio on Monday that the unions had voted overwhelmingly for Cunliffe because they thought he could beat Key. According to Williams, the unions no longer think that.

My pick at this stage? Cunliffe to drop out in round one, with Little triumphing on preferences. Unless of course the picture gets further complicated by David Shearer or David Parker entering, to make the race a four- or five-way… Because then all bets would be off!

 

 

Holding out for a hero

David Cunliffe cannot beat National in 2017. That’s as close to a political certainty as there is. Labour did as poorly as they did this election in part because of Cunliffe. I know too many people who wouldn’t touch Labour with a barge pole while Cunliffe was leader.

Brian Edwards sums up Cunliffe’s problem well:

Perhaps the most widespread criticism you hear of David Cunliffe is that he doesn’t seem sincere, that the things he says seem to lack spontaneity, to sound rehearsed, scripted, to be part of a performance. It’s not just that the Labour Leader’s acting is over the top; it’s that he should be acting at all.

I think there’s some truth to this, to the ‘but’ that lies at the back of so many people’s minds, the ill-defined but nagging doubt as to whether this is a man you can trust or someone you can afford to like. I hear this all the time. On the street. At parties. In discussion with friends. Ask them for the evidence to support their conclusion and you rarely get a clear answer. It’s just an impression, a perception, a feeling. But it may account in part for Labour’s dismal showing in the election. And it may be enough to prevent David Cunliffe ever becoming Prime Minister.

But that’s only the start of it. From even before David Cunliffe was elected leader, everyone knew that most of his colleagues despised him. The term ABC – Anyone But Cunliffe – became a common expression on the evening news. Labour’s MPs may have put their vendettas on hold during the election campaign proper, but the previous year of leaks, backstabbing and continual undermining of Cunliffe had left the public with no illusions that Labour was desperately divided house.

If Cunliffe somehow manages to retain the leadership, the situation will be even worse. Voters will continue to stay away from Labour in droves.

Unfortunately, Grant Robertson doesn’t appear to offer much in terms of mending a broken party. Many in the caucus seem reluctant to get in behind him – they really dislike Cunliffe, but they’re still not sure whether Robertson has what it takes to defeat Key. And a majority of the members seem even less enthused by him, perhaps put off by his career politician, “beltway” background.

Besides, like a drunken fratboy, the Labour leadership contest has gone ugly early. Cunliffe is already damaged goods; by the time the primary campaign is over, Robertson might well be too.

So who else is there? David Shearer? He’s already failed once as leader. His on-camera appearances may have improved, but they’ve been in the context of defined policy areas, rather than the broad big-picture Q&A sessions he’d have to cope with as leader. If he were to revert back to the role of leader, he would once again fail.

Andrew Little? A possibility. If he threw his hat into the ring, he’d certainly command a great deal of support from the unions, and he doesn’t seem disliked by either the caucus or membership. As a contender for Prime Minister though, he’d likely struggle to be seen as anything other than a mouthpiece for the unions.

Stuart Nash or Kelvin Davis? Far too inexperienced, with no real support base yet to speak of. If either of them makes a tilt for the leadership, it will be for the purpose of increasing their profile and gaining a senior role from whoever wins.

Jacinda Ardern? Too young, with no solid form behind her. See my previous post: “The Mystifying Rise of Jacinda Ardern“.

Which leaves David Parker. As Cunliffe and Robertson fight each other to a standstill, Parker would be an ideal candidate to throw his name in at the last minute and cut through the middle. He’s intelligent and articulate, with a solid policy grasp. He was impressive in the finance debates with Bill English during the election. He’s the sort of stable, respectable figure who might just be able to convince the voting public that Labour can again be trusted.

Crazy? Perhaps. But no less crazy than any of the other alternatives…

 

The very public evisceration of David Cunliffe

Ordinarily, when the coup of a party leader is underway, one of two things happens. Either the incumbent simply walks, having seen the writing on the wall, or attempts to stare down their opposition in a closed room. Someone walks out of the room as leader, be they the continuing leader or a fresh face, and the party and public is informed of the result.

The Labour Party, in its collective wisdom, now has a very public election process, which is all very well for the candidates with no leadership history to defend. It’s a very different kettle of fish for David Cunliffe, who will now have to defend leading Labour to its worst result in recent history.

If one wins a resounding victory and credits the team (a la John Key), one is deemed a good winner. If one suffers a resounding loss and runs with the ‘blame everyone but oneself’ approach, the plaudits are somewhat fewer. Therein lies the catch for Cunliffe. If he accepts responsibility, as he’s hitherto failed to do, he’s toast. If he tries to apportion blame elsewhere, he risks a resounding backlash.

The backlash has begun. Cunliffe has remarked that some candidates may have been concentrating on the electorate vote, rather than the party vote. He’s had an excruciatingly scathing open letter from Labour’s Ilam candidate, James Macbeth Dann as a result, published at Public Address. Here are some highlights:

I gave my campaign everything, and I am sure that you did the same. We ran a two ticks campaign in Ilam. All our material had “Party Vote Labour” proudly on it. We delivered tens of thousands of pieces of paper with your face on it. But the reality, the hard truth, is that people in the electorate just didn’t connect with you. I lost count of the number of times I door knocked someone who told me they had voted Labour all their life, but wouldn’t vote for us as long as you were leader. People who would have a Labour sign – but not one with your face on it. While those examples are strictly anecdotal, the result on election night isn’t. It’s unavoidable. It’s practically the worst result in the Party’s history.

And:

The Labour Party isn’t a vehicle for you to indulge your fantasy of being Prime Minister. While you might think that it’s your destiny to be the visionary leader of this country, the country has a very different vision – and it doesn’t involve you.

It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Labour party, one that is closer in both age and understanding with the people it needs to represent. It’s not just time for Grant, but also for people like me. I think I did a good job in a very difficult electorate, and would like to build on it at the next election.

However, I won’t be part of a party that you lead. Not because I don’t like you, but because I simply don’t want to lose again. That’s the reality David. The people of New Zealand don’t want you to be their leader. The comparisons that you and your supporters have thrown up don’t hold water – you aren’t Norm Kirk and you aren’t Helen Clark. You’re David Cunliffe and you led the Labour Party to it’s most devastating result in modern history.

So I’ll promise you this. If you win, I’ll step aside from the party, to let you and your supporters mould it into the party you want. But in return I ask this: if you lose this primary, you resign from parliament. In your time in opposition, we’ve had you on the front bench, where you let down your leader at the most critical point of the 2011 campaign. You ran for leader and lost, then destabilised the elected leader. Then when you got your chance as leader, you led Labour a party that was polling in the mid-30’s to one that sits firmly in the mid-20’s. There is no place for you in this party anymore.

And of course it’s open season in the media, with so much blood in the water. The NZ Herald had an online article entitled “Cunliffe’s candid comments on the leadership”. Except that it doesn’t go by that title anymore. Instead it’s been renamed “13 bizarre things Cunliffe has said in the past 24 hours“. There was no change in the content of the article, but the title is a spectacular shift in slant.

The new acting leader is David Parker, Cunliffe’s former deputy and finance spokesperson. As someone who performed exceptionally well throughout the campaign, he can’t be accused of attempting to undermine Cunliffe’s leadership. He’s been a loyal deputy, despite once being a contender for the leadership. And he too has now rammed the knife into Cunliffe, explicitly stating that he’s lost confidence in him.

When someone like Parker makes it that clear, in such a public fashion, there’s no way back for Cunliffe, even if he somehow wins the members and union vote with such a margin that he scrapes back in as leader. What do you do when your finance spokesperson has publicly stated he has no confidence in you?

Can Grant Robertson beat John Key in 2017? Who knows. Nonetheless, Cunliffe is a corpse, even if he retains the leadership. Perhaps the best thing for Labour would be for Cunliffe to abandon his tilt for the leadership, and for David Parker to reassess his refusal to stand. Parker v Robertson: a battle that could provide positive headlines? Or is it just me?

 

The Labour numbers game

With a caucus of 32 MPs, David Cunliffe needs the support of at least thirteen MPs in order survive a confidence vote. His opponents need twenty votes to force a full leadership ballot. Yesterday, I listed nine MPs who have either publicly refused to express support for him or have – like David Shearer, Stuart Nash and Damien O’Connor – been overtly hostile.

This morning in the NZ Herald, Claire Trevett lists the pro- and anti-Cunliffe factions:

• Camp Cunliffe: David Cunliffe, Iain Lees-Galloway, Nanaia Mahuta, Sue Moroney, Carmel Sepuloni, Su’a William Sio, Louisa Wall.
• Another candidate: Jacinda Ardern, David Clark, Clayton Cosgrove, Clare Curran, Kelvin Davis, Ruth Dyson, Kris Faafoi, Phil Goff, Chris Hipkins, Annette King, Andrew Little, Trevor Mallard, Stuart Nash, Damien O’Connor, David Parker, Grant Robertson, David Shearer, Rino Tirikatene, Phil Twyford, Megan Woods.
• Unknown: Peeni Henare, Adrian Rurawhe, Jenny Salesa, Meka Whaitiri, Poto Williams.

That’s twenty anti-Cunliffe names right there already, without even the need to put pressure on any of the five ‘unknowns’. Cunliffe has just six supporters (not counting himself), five of whom flanked him at his pre-caucus meeting press conference.

Cunliffe’s opponents presumably therefore have the numbers to force a party-wide leadership ballot any time they like. And as predicted, before they make their move, they’re waiting for the full horror of a campaign review to erode Cunliffe’s support among the members and unions.

The only hope that Cunliffe has of hanging on to his leadership is to resign immediately and force a quick leadership contest. He’d have to hope that the party membership will be sufficiently hacked off about the caucus declaration of war against him that they’ll keep the faith with him. In my view, that’s a slim hope…

Cunliffe supporters are desperately trying to compare the situation to 1996, where Helen Clark lost in New Zealand’s first MMP election, before going on to win power in 1999. There’s no comparison there. Labour may have dropped 6.5% in that election to just 28.2%, but National was just 5.7% ahead, on 33.9% (having dropped 1.2% since 1993). Helen Clark could have formed a government, had Winston Peters jumped in that direction (the direction many had assumed he would go). Labour was well set up to oust National in three years time.

In 2014, however, National is able to govern alone, having received almost 50% of the vote. Labour finds itself 23.4% adrift, and in almost complete internal turmoil.

David Cunliffe is no Helen Clark.

EDIT:

Hmm, I appear to have been led astray by both the One News and 3News political editors, both of whom have been reporting that the anti-Cunliffe campaign requires 60% plus one MP.

However, David Farrar in his post entitled ‘Caucus in Charge‘ says Dann and Gower are wrong, and the ABCs need just 40% to spark a contested ballot. Peter Green confirms this to me on Twitter. That means that Cunliffe needs 21 MPs to survive a confidence vote, which means the ABCs already have the numbers by a huge margin.

National’s amorphous tax cut plan

Tax cuts – they’re coming, in April 2017, should National be re-elected. Maybe. Depending on whether economic and fiscal conditions allow.

But what form will these tax cuts take? That’s a good question, to which no one is any the wiser. By April 2017, National projects that they’ll have accrued a pool of $1.5 billion, of which apparently $1 billion will be set aside for tax cuts, while the remaining $500 million will go towards debt reduction. Tax cuts will be targeted to lower and middle income earners, but how National intends to structure the cuts is a mystery.

And what will these lower and middle income earners receive in their back pockets? Well, here things get really strange. Last week, John Key was pulling numbers from thin aid, pondering anything from $10, $20, $30… Then over the weekend on The Nation, Bill English was denying that any numbers had been floated at all, and come the official announcement on Monday, nary a number was in sight.

The lack of numbers has given David Cunliffe carte blanche to wander round waving a $10 note, telling all and sundry that that’s all, folks. National can hardly refute him, given that they don’t seem to know themselves.

I can understand that National would be wary of relying too much on Treasury’s three year projections. After all, Treasury projections can be remarkably inaccurate in just the short term. Nonetheless, would it be that difficult for the Finance Minister to say, “If these projections are reasonably accurate, here’s our expectation of how our proposed tax cuts would be structured. Obviously, if the projections change, we’ll need to revise how we do it.”

One gets the feeling that this is National’s particular brand of policy-making on the hoof; an awkward diversion from Dirty Politics that hasn’t yet been debated in any policy back room. Certainly, neither John Key nor Bill English seemed to have spent much time making sure their song sheets were as one.

At the end of the day (to use a now-universally reviled phrase), National’s tax cuts announcement is more of a vision statement than a coherent policy. National wants to draw a line between its goal of largely capping Government spending and eventually lowering taxes, and Labour’s intention to increase spending via its Capital Gains Tax policy.

Of course, the Labour and National positions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I’m a fan of a broad-based tax system, with all income treated equally, regardless of source. That of course requires a comprehensive CGT, and a CGT means that other tax rates can be lowered to take into account the additional Government revenue. Labour’s (less than comprehensive) CGT is certainly all about funding extra spending in the short-term, but longer-term, Labour may be intending to use the increased revenue to fund tax cuts.

On The Nation, David Parker left the door open for tax cuts at a higher rate than National. Of course, future tax cuts weren’t “promised”, but Parker stated:

 No, we’re actually not promising tax cuts. We’ve said that we’ve left open the possibility of tax cuts. Our promises are to run Budget surpluses and to reduce net government debt to 3% of GDP by the end of our second term.

Then, when asked, “So you’re leaving open the possibility, as you put it, of tax cuts that are a higher rate than National?”, Parker replied, “Yes, we are.”

It’s a position that’s even more amorphous than National’s, but National doesn’t want the focus on the distant possibility of tax cuts under Labour. They want voters to be performing a very simple comparison: tax and spend under Labour (that old National mantra) versus fiscal restraint under National.

Labour’s Prefu SNAFU

When National opened the books ahead of the election with the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update (Prefu), the projected surplus for 2014/15 fell from $372 million to $297 million. In a way, the decrease in the projected surplus was an electoral bonus for National. John Key and Bill English have been painting National as sound fiscal managers, while accusing Labour of spending projected surpluses before they’ve been achieved. The Prefu’s decrease in the 2014/15 surplus allowed National to keep their budget halo intact (“We’re still achieving a surplus as promised!”), while being able to warn that conditions were not so rosy as to allow Labour’s proposed spending increases.

David Parker’s mantra has been that all Labour’s policies were fully costed. He and Cunliffe have been desperate to appear just as fiscally responsible as National, such that Labour (and indeed even the Greens!) were boasting that they would in fact be paying down Government debt faster than National.

Well, the worsening outlook seems to have caught Labour well and truly by surprise, and the fiscal responsibility mantra has thrown the party’s policy schedule into disarray, with $300 million in spending needing to be cut. Labour were to have unveiled seven more policies; six have now been dumped. You have to wonder how the party intends to fill the sudden holes in their campaign schedule, while the Greens are meanwhile gloating that that was why they delayed the release of their plan until after the Prefu.

Just two weeks ago, Labour was promising free doctors’ visits and prescriptions for pensioners. That policy would now be delayed by six months, but it’s a policy that may well come back to bite Labour where it hurts. The policy was lambasted by many on both sides of the political spectrum as being a blatant election bribe to a group that was least in need, given that retirees are just a tiny proportion of those that put off doctors’ visits and/or prescriptions due to unaffordability. When the money was there, the policy could be spun by someone like Rob Salmond as possibly being The Right Thing To Do, but the justifications fade when other policies are being dumped due to lack of funds. It’s bribery, pure and simple, and I’m not sure that even the bribe’s targets, the elderly, are going to get behind the policy.

Since the resignation of Helen Clark as Labour Party leader, SNAFU (situation normal: all fucked up) has been a rather accurate descriptor of the party. Just when they were starting to look on top of things – with uncharacteristically high levels of internal discipline, policy being rolled out, and National on the back foot – along comes the Prefu to return things to Situation Normal.

Labour’s immigration policy is a mess.

When David Parker first announced that Labour intended to use immigration as a tool to ease housing and inflationary pressure, I was somewhat concerned. Firstly, Governments are notoriously bad at planning long-term, and immigration targets aren’t something that can be easily adjusted on a year by year or six-monthly basis, depending on new house price and inflation data. Secondly, everyone seems to be operating blind on what effect immigration even has on local house prices and inflation – the data just isn’t there.

An additional concern was the ability for the debate to slide into Winston Peters territory. And sure enough, David Cunliffe soon pulled out his dog whistle, to the consternation of most Labour activists. “It would take 80% of our housing supply just to accommodate this year’s migrants – and National is doing nothing,” intoned Mr Cunliffe.

The problem for Cunliffe was that he laid out some fairly hefty immigration targets – getting net migration numbers down from over 40,000 currently to between 5,000 and 15,000 – before realising that there was no possible way he could do that, given that the bulk of the immigration blow out has been caused by fewer Kiwis leaving the country, more returning, and more Australians coming here to live and work as the Aussie economy goes down the sinkhole. Cunliffe immediately backtracked on the idea of a finite target, and has instead resorted to waffle about “sustainable flows of migrants”, without providing any sort of indication about what he considers a sustainable flow to be.

Since then, Labour have been unable to provide any figures regarding where cuts to immigration would be made. Somewhat embarrassingly, when definite statements have been made about specific categories of immigration that would be targeted, those statements have soon been contradicted.

For example, on 28 May the Dominion Post reported Labour’s immigration spokesperson, Trevor Mallard, as saying that Labour would target the number of migrants getting work visas, as well as visas in the family reunification category. However, by yesterday, David Cunliffe was on Radio Live telling Sean Plunket, “Yep, we’ll leave family reunification out of it”.

So that leaves those arriving on work visas. According to Statistics NZ, there were about 30,000 last year, which means that if Labour slashed their numbers, they could bring net migration down to a “sustainable level”. But there’s two problems here. Firstly, how many people on work permits buy houses? I wouldn’t have thought there’d be many – but wait a minute, that’s right, we don’t have any data on that… Secondly, if those migrants are coming here to work, that’s a lot of tax that’s not going to be paid and a lot of economic activity that won’t occur. Labour had better be pretty damned sure about the level of excess inflationary pressure it aims to alleviate and just how much of an effect such a cut in work visas would have.

The other area of immigration that Labour has definitely signalled it will look at is the Investor and Investor Plus categories – those controversial categories where if you pay enough money, you get residence. Unfortunately, the numbers of those entering New Zealand as part of those categories is minuscule – 21 Investor Plus applicants and 99 Investor applicants. Frankly, I can’t see the axing of 120 millionaire immigrants per year having much effect on inflationary pressure or house prices. (That’s not to say that the English language requirements shouldn’t be tightened up, but that’s a different issue.)

The more statements Cunliffe and Mallard make on immigration, the more it looks as if they’re simply making it all up as they go along, which isn’t particularly comforting.