In the extraordinary breakdown of the relationship between MP Chris Carter and the Labour Party all the participants have come out of it looking rather pathetic. Certainly no players in this latest parliamentary soap opera appeared to be operating along lines of principle – instead, they have all proved themselves to be rather self-serving and without principle. Thus, the whole affair has been a good case study of the state of the modern Labour Party as well as wider parliamentary politics in New Zealand. Rather than being about the big issues in politics, the dispute seemed remarkably pitiful and personal. Indeed, it is extraordinary that what has mostly been a rather trivial affair has resulted in history making whereby Carter has become the first ever MP to be expelled from both the parliamentary Labour caucus and the wider Labour Party. And yet it’s still not clear exactly what his crime was, apart from being a dissenting party member who acted like most maneuvering politicians, using subterfuge and plotting in an attempt to further their own ends. Frankly, Chris Carter’s beef with his party was simply about his mistreatment by the leadership, and the leadership’s beef with him was that he had become an embarrassment and a media distraction – which is not exactly ‘meaningful politics’. Yet, despite all this ‘real-politicking’, there is actually a deeper ideological issue involved. Carter’s expulsion can be seen as a signal of Phil Goff’s strong desire to expunge all elements from the party that in the public’s mind represent the ‘bad old days’ of the Helen Clark Labour Government. It seems that Chris Carter personifies the socially liberal, nanny-state politics and arrogance that saw Labour turfed out of office, and therefore he had to be marginalised from the new-look Labour Party. I spoke about some of this on TVNZ News recently – watch the interview here – and this blog post elaborates on some of my arguments. [Read more below]
What was Chris Carter’s crime?
The line that Chris Carter continues to maintain – ‘My dispute is not with the Labour Party, but with the current parliamentary leadership’ – has always rung true. His estrangement has not been about him having any strong political differences with his party or even with leader Phil Goff. In fact Carter continued to state very clearly and without refutation that ‘I am a loyal supporter of the Labour Party, sharing its values and aspirations’. Certainly he hadn’t done anything that would suggest he was at ideological variance with his party. Similarly, Carter’s argument that ‘I believe Labour would do better at next year's election under a fresh leader’ and it will struggle to win in 2011, is relatively non-controversial. After all, is there really anyone that doesn’t believe that Labour will struggle to win the next election? Moreover, it’s a fact that the public does not (currently) perceive Phil Goff as a credible potential prime minister.
So why has Chris Carter been expelled? Perhaps it’s because of the many unlikeable and outrageous things that Chris Carter has done and said lately? But should any such unlikeable personal characteristics be criteria for expelling someone from a democratic organization? Perhaps the expulsion was because Carter has become a total maverick and careerist? But if this is now deemed a crime in the Labour Party, then many Labour MPs should also be worried.
In this context, it’s worth considering other maverick Labour MPs from recent years. In the 1980s and 1990s, senior Labour MPs such as Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, David Caygill, Phil Goff, and Mike Moore never even came close to be expelled. Yet all these politicians were all very rightwing mavericks that damaged the reputation of the Labour Party in a much more serious way than Chris Carter has ever been capable of. While Chris Carter has been an embarrassment and can be rightly condemned for this careerism and misuse of taxpayer funds, ultimately such crimes are fairly minor compared to those on the right of the Labour Party. Those politicians that implemented neoliberal policies seriously damaged Labour’s core support base and significantly dragged the party seriously to the right.
What’s more, those individuals all plotted and made public pronouncements of a much more divisive and destabilizing kind than Carter has done. In fact during the 1980s and 1990s, Labour MPs broke caucus discipline all the time without censure. For example, throughout 1994 and 1995 Mike Moore and his supporters were openly disloyal and uncommitted to the Labour Party. In the 1994 Selwyn by-election, for instance, supporters of Moore attempted to give the Alliance information about Labour's campaign. In 1995 Moore publicly called the Labour Party a ‘toxic waste dump’ and referred to a section of the party’s MPs as ‘Klingons’. The same year he told the media that Labour’s first MMP party list was a ‘suicide note’ and he said all sorts of incredible things about the need for a new political party, but was never even told off. Around this time, the caucus secretary Jack Elder leaked internal party information which showed that membership had declined from 5600 to 3600, and this led to no serious consequences. Even the current party leader, Phil Goff, has said some incredibly divisive things in the past. In fact, back in the mid-1990s Goff was revealed to be in talks with the Act Party about jumping ship, and this brought no censure at all.
On the left of the party, too, all sorts of plotting and subterfuge and serious disagreement never led to expulsions. For example, although Jim Anderton was expelled from the Labour parliamentary caucus back in 1989, he was never expelled from the party and clearly wouldn’t have been even if he hadn’t resigned. And in Anderton’s case he was a lot more critical of the Labour leadership and hostile towards his own government than Carter ever was.
More recently, MP and minister Philip Field was also never expelled from the party, despite obviously being involved in all sorts of morally repugnant activity. The leadership actually protected him from criticism rather than give him the push.
So what does the Labour Party officially say is the reason for Chris Carter’s expulsion? The council found he had breached party rules ‘by acting in a misleading manner likely to cause internal discontent and encourage external ridicule’. But what Labour Party MP hasn’t acted in this way? For instance, all the Labour MPs recently brought external ridicule to the party when they travelled around the country on (taxpayer-funded) campaign bus trip that misleadingly promised to ‘Axe the tax’ when the Labour Party have no intention of axing either GST or axing the National Government’s GST increase to 15%.
Much has also been made of the silly anonymous letter that Carter penned to parliamentary press gallery journalists. The party president (and others) made much of this ‘crime’ – Andrew Little was reported as saying that ‘in the past, leadership challenges and coups had seen direct confrontations either to the person concerned or the party caucus’. These are weasel words that anyone with any knowledge of internal parliamentary politics know is disingenuous rubbish. Such ‘furtive sneaky’ letters and such are used all the time. Anyone that has worked in Parliament knows that this sort of thing is common. (For instance when I worked there, I remember one Alliance party staffer being rather excited to have discovered a highly-contentious internal National Party leadership challenge document on the floor of a corridor near the press gallery. But the excitement quickly disappeared when it was soon discovered that in fact Jim Anderton’s chief media spindoctor, John Pagani had actually authored the fake document and deliberately left it for journalists to discover.) This type of activity is common place, and is used as a weapon against both external and internal party opponents.
Democracy in political parties
It’s a dark day in for politics in New Zealand when dissenting party members can be as easily expelled as Chris Carter was from Labour. Political parties should contain a diversity of political points of view, and these should be encouraged to exist. Loyalty to a particular party leader should not be the criteria for being able to remain a member of any healthy political party. Do we really want political parties to be weeding out any party member who disagrees with the current leader? That certainly seems to be what people like Phil Goff believe. It’s an incredible autocratic version of party politics. And it’s not surprising to see prime minister and National Party leader John Key display the same autocratic belief. Notably, he quickly jumped into the Chris Carter debate to side with his Labour counterpart, being reported as saying ‘he would not tolerate any such undermining within his own caucus’.
It seems that New Zealand political parties are becoming extremely homogenous and intolerant of difference. So the great danger of having party members expelled for publicly advocating leadership change is that New Zealand’s political parties become even more uptight, narrow, top-down, bureaucratic organisations than they already are.
Notably, ‘Eddie’ writing on The Standard blog has made a similar argument:
Then as now, there’s a real question over whether someone should be kicked out of the Party for disagreeing with the leadership. John A was never disloyal to the principles that Labour stood for and Carter, too, clearly believes in Labour’s values, even though his abuse of taxpayer money made a mockery of them. If Carter is kicked out essentially just for not getting on with the current leadership, that’s a real problem because Labour is, and should continue to be, far more than just the leadership. So, there’s the principled reason: following the leader, whether you think they are doing right or wrong, should not be a condition of party membership. The political reason is that Carter seems quite happy to carry on as a self-branded ‘Independent Labour MP’ and vote the Labour line.
Certainly, if coup attempts within political parties are now the criteria for expulsion then there will no doubt be much less democratic behaviour in parties. Certainly in the recent Act Party Roy-Hide breakdown, if Labour’s rules were applied it’s not hard to imagine Roy being expelled from both the party caucus and wider Act Party. Hence the practical affect of this shift is to clamp down on the free and frank debate amongst MPs and rank-and-file party members about party leadership.
The political reason for kicking out Chris Carter
It is rather puzzling that the Labour Party can so quickly turn against someone that they had such strong confidence in – that Carter can go from being hero to zero, a senior Cabinet minister one year and then ejected forcefully from the party during the following parliamentary term. Carter was, after all, Minister of Conservation from 2002-2007, a chief whip, as well as a confidante and close friend of Helen Clark. Ex-president of the Labour Party, Bob Harvey has corrected said, ‘No one was closer and no one was more intimate to how the ninth floor of Beehive worked other than him and Judith (Tizard)’. This is not say that Carter was in fact a good minister or parliamentarian – he always came across as a very pedestrian MP and minister. But his rapid decline should raise questions about what this marginalization and expulsion were really about.
Carter’s real political crime was to be the epitome of all the unpopular elements of the last Labour Government: socially liberal, arrogant, careerist, etc. Phil Goff has shrewdly seen that the existence of this social liberal element is the most damaging to Labour’s resuscitation. Goff knows that he needs to put as much space between himself and the nanny state-style social liberalism that people like Helen Clark and her closest caucus supporters were identified with. Of course, Carter was never the sharpest knife in the draw, and he was obviously unaware that his liberal version of the Labour Party no longer sells.
In fact Goff has been back-peddling on Labour’s social liberalism for nearly two years now. As argued previously on this blog, ‘The politics of the Labour liberals, with its entire nanny/bully state image, has become incredibly unpopular with the general electorate. Any new leader of Labour therefore needed to reposition Labour in a new and more popular direction, which openly broke from its ‘namby pamby’ image’. See: Identity politics vs class politics - 4: Understanding Labour’s tilt to the left
Similarly, Chris Trotter argued in his blog post, The Liberal Left: Who Needs You?, that ‘By abandoning the failed, identity-driven politics of the past 30 years, and returning his party to its egalitarian and socialist roots, Phil Goff has taken the first, and absolutely necessary steps towards Labour’s rehabilitation – and re-election’.
Labour Party activist Tom Semmens has also astutely commenting on this trend recently on the Public Address blog:
Whether we like or not, the identity politics vein is now largely mined out. As far as I can tell, we’ve reached a new generational social equilibrium, and the “great New Zealand public” has no further appetite for more liberal social reform. Labour can no longer leverage electoral advantage from liberal identity politics – in fact people seem heartily sick of it to the point that we as a country are lapping up a reactionary, authoritarian bully state and loving it.
So Phil Goff’s wish to expunge all symbols of social liberalism from Labour is smart politics – and ironically, it’s probably quite progressive – but it’s also rather unprincipled. Political parties shouldn’t be like fiefdoms whereby the leader just decides on a new political trajectory and essentially declares that anyone in the party pushing the ‘old policies’ of the party are to be seen as the enemy of the party. This is essentially what dictators like Joseph Stalin would do – one year the official line of Stalin’s Soviet party would be that ‘black is white’ and all those that thought ‘black was black’ were the enemies of the people, but then the next year Stalin would flip-flop without warning and suddenly he would maintain that he always believed that ‘black was black’ and those that thought otherwise were the enemies within to be dealt with. Likewise, the Labour Party has pushed social liberalism heavily for a few decades, but suddenly it’s leader has essentially declared that ‘social liberalism’ has no place in the Labour Party and those that believe in it are not welcome.
Chris Carter has also said, ‘I also regret that, during the pressures I have faced in the past year, I did not receive the support, advice or guidance I expected from my party leadership’. This is probably true, even though it makes him sound rather pathetic. But it certainly seems to be true that in the whole scandal over ministerial travel expenses, Carter was extremely badly advised. His whole orientation to the scandal was horrendously bad, and this reflected poorly on both him and the Labour Party.
So why wasn’t the wider party and leadership giving him advice that would have resulted in better public impression? Clearly the party and leadership failed terribly – due to either unwillingness or incapacity to advise him. Either way, it is indeed an indictment of the Labour Party’s poor political health that Carter was left to deal with the ministerial credit card scandal with such a poor line of answer. In fact his colleagues even facilitated him making his arguments – putting his primarily reaction to allegations against him up on the Labour Party ‘Red Alert’ blog.
The maneuverings of Chris Carter
Most of the public would probably now agree with John Tamihere’s characterization of Chris Carter as a ‘tosser’ in the infamous Investigate magazine interview. The whole affair has shown Carter to be a rather unprincipled careerist politician. For example, in announcing his decision not to stand for re-election to Parliament, Carter made it sound like his decision was based on principle and high morals – he said, ‘In good conscience I cannot campaign on behalf of a leader I have criticised’; ‘It would not be fair to him or ethical of me’. Of course his decision was based on something completely different to principle and ethics.
Also most of the recent ‘chapters’ in the silly Chris Carter story have been about the maneuvering of Carter to negotiate and leverage the best possible personal deal for his exit from parliamentary politics. Carter says that ‘he'd decided some weeks ago that he needed new challenges’ and would not seek to stand for Labour again in his electorate. Apparently he made the decision at the end of August not to contest another election. This is probably true. The last two months has all been about maneuvering and leverage for Carter – he has been doing everything possible to leverage a satisfactory exit from politics.
He tried to do all sorts of deals with the Labour leadership. This included an offer from Carter in which ‘we would both pledge ourselves to working together for a Labour victory’. Carter says he didn’t hear from Goff or party president Andrew Little: ‘The response I had was that Phil could not move ... that he had locked himself into a corner’. Then he attempted to arrange for disciplinary action to be dropped in exchange for him resigning as MP for Te Atatu. (Jessica Mutch has correctly stated, that "Effectively, what [Carter's] done here is he's stood with his hands up, saying 'Look, I won't battle in this seat, but give me a little bit here, let me stay on in the Labour Party.'")
Claims even surfaced that Carter had approached the Labour Party for help in finding another job in exchange for withdrawing his nomination for re-selection. Such stories of maneuvering nicely sum up Chris Carter’s career – he’s been schooled in the Helen Clark style of managerial politics, which requires all sorts of cunning power plays. His way has been to make ongoing threats against certain people in the party. But again, that’s not so unusual in political parties.
An anonymous blogger on the Voxy internet platform who writes under the name ‘Caucus Race’ (and declares themselves to be a ‘parliamentary insider’), has written a very informative and insightful account of Carter’s political history entitled, The Curious Case of Chris Carter. This provides a good background on ‘the man and his motivation’:
When Chris Carter became the MP for Te Atatu in 1993 he proclaimed that he was the first openly gay MP in Parliament. It took some in his electorate by surprise because most of them did not know his sexuality, as it had not been mentioned during the campaign and probably most did not care, but it was not to be the last time Carter was to play the gay card when it suited him…. So Chris Carter came to Parliament and became the first openly gay MP in Parliament after he was elected. Three years later Tim Barnett actually told the good people of Christchurch Central that he was gay before they voted and he romped in as well.
Furthermore, ‘Caucus Race’ outlines the dissatisfaction that Carter created within the Labour caucus:
Trevor Mallard was driven crazy by Carter’s insistence that Solid Energy should spend millions of dollars on saving a snail that was not in need of saving and would have probably done better in the wild than the fridges of Carter’s DOC. Carter also got on the wrong side of the law when he over ruled advice to try and can a marina in Whangamata. There was an argument to be had either way, but most suspect he was swayed by former Labour party president Bob Harvey who was worried about the effect on a surf break.
Carter got stomped in court as his decision was wrong in law. Over the years Carter fell to the classic problems that beset many senior ministers who start to believe their own publicity... hubris. He built up a huge sense of entitlement and a hunger for world travel in nice hotels with his partner at the taxpayers’ expense. Anyone who questioned him was dismissed as not understanding how hard he worked, those who pushed harder were accused of picking on him because he was gay. The last playing of the gay card to defend his large expenses bill was a signal of the end of Carter’s career, and Goff tried to bring it to a close after Carter made a bumbling attempt to manufacture a covert coup.
Chris Carter’s careerism
Recently on The Standard blog ‘Marty G’ argued (quite rightly) that Carter’s decline reflects the serious problem of careerism in Labour politics:
Carter’s rot is the corruption of all MPs who forget who they were elected to serve… It’s Carter saying that his paycheck and the feeling of pride he gets from being an MP matters more to him than what Labour stands for. Get rid of him. The selfish bastard has forgotten his job as a Labour MP. He has forgotten that his job is to represent the needs, beliefs, and aspirations of working Kiwis above and beyond his self-interest…. This problem, I think, goes further than Carter within Labour and in other parties too. There are too many MPs and staff who get used to the good pay and the power – who come to feel they’re entitled to it and become adverse to going out on a limb to fight for the people who put them there because they have too much personally at risk.
‘Marty G’ then goes on to make some interesting proposals that might fix Labour’s careerism problem:
To remind MPs and staff that they are there to serve Labour, that it is the Labour Party and its supporters who got them where they are, all should have to tithe. Everyone should give 10% while MPs and senior staff on 100K plus salaries should give at least 20%. It would act to remind them at whose pleasure they serve, who put them where they are. It would go a long way to fixing the money troubles too. By selecting candidates who aren’t careerists. Labour has some very good junior MPs who got their start in politics in the Leader’s office but I think there’s too much of it going on. There are too many who are too young and who owe their position to relationship’s within the Parliamentary wing, rather than achievement in the wider labour/social justice movement.
Interestingly, he also boldly states that, ‘Without a moment’s pause, I can think of half a dozen current Labour MPs who have been allowed to hold safe seats while contributing very little for too long – and they’re nearly unmoveable now because they have been allowed to build an iron tight grasp on their local party organisations’
But is Carter really very different from other MPs? Perhaps Chris Carter is an extreme example of how odiously self-serving New Zealand careerist politics has become, but it would be wrong to regard him as a total aberration. A discussion on Kiwiblog is informative in this regard. When Carter returned to Parliament from his sickleave, David Farrar wrote a blog post to say, ‘I hope Chris has recovered from whatever condition it was that necessitated two months sick leave. Hopefully he has seen specialists to ensure it is not contagious’. In reply, Rex Widerstrom made the following insightful point:
“Not contagious”? You’re joking, right? Based on the symptoms – an undeserved sense of superiority and entitlement; a complete inability for introspection; overweening arrogance; willingness to dissemble in the face of incontrovertible proof to the contrary – there’s around 120 advanced cases already. Luckily they’re confined to one building, ruled over by an Emperor they all recently appointed. Considering there appears to be no cure, and indeed infection is immediate upon entering the building, I suggest the only course open to us is to nail the doors shut and burn it down.
Although said in jest, Widerstrom’s point is a very good one. After all, are other troughing MPs really that much better? For example, did Bill English have a better attitude to being caught out with his own ministerial housing scam?
The Chris Carter debacle is a good reflection of much that is wrong with contemporary politics – it’s individualistic, non-ideological, unprincipled, and trivial. And so none of this reflects well on Chris Carter, the Labour Party, Phil Goff, Andrew Little, or parliamentary politics in general. Below are some further images that have come out of this Labour Party soap opera.