By Bryce Edwards
Scores are being settled at the moment, with Labour MP Louisa Wall going out in a blaze of media interviews to air the dirty laundry of her party. These surprising red-on-red attacks are going to be damaging for all sides.
Wall’s media blitz over the weekend paves the way for her valedictory speech on Thursday in Parliament. She’s been putting her side of the story about why she was de-selected from her safe seat of Manurewa, and why she was never given a Cabinet role when other less experienced and often inept politicians kept being promoted ahead of her.
Why did Labour and Wall fall out?
Wall has confirmed that her lack of political elevation to Cabinet was no oversight, but a deliberate policy of Ardern’s. She claims that Ardern told her that she would “never” be a cabinet minister while Ardern was prime minister. And Wall says that Ardern also wanted her out of Parliament, saying “She was obviously very clear that she didn’t want me in her caucus”.
So, why the falling out? Wall said yesterday on Q+A that she was being punished by Ardern for her support of David Cunliffe, who beat Grant Robertson for leadership in 2013.
There are other reasons that Wall’s colleagues may have doubted her loyalty. For instance, it was revealed over the weekend that when Wall was fighting to retain her candidacy in Manurewa, she hired former National Cabinet minister and Attorney-General Chris Finlayson to challenge Labour in court.
Despite this, there’s a lot of sympathy for Wall on the left. For instance, leftwing political commentator Martyn Bradbury says today that the episode highlights once again that the “Left hates talent and rewards subservience”.
Chris Trotter suggests today it was because Wall was too economically left-wing, and didn’t fit with the more conservative, do-nothing approach of the new leadership.
Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton says the most likely scenario is that “Wall is extremely difficult to work with, has been disloyal at times to Labour’s political strategy and Government policy, has fought with and belittled colleagues and staff, and enjoys little or no support among Labour MPs or party members”.
Regardless of the reason for her departure, there’s also the question of whether Wall has been mistreated by Ardern and her party. Wall is in no doubt about this. Ardern has, in contrast, said that Wall “absolutely” was treated well.
And today, former party president Mike Williams has said that not only are Wall’s accusations unfair and untrue, but the outgoing MP has also been well looked after, especially with the Labour Party organising a good job for her to go into.
A damaging departure
MPs who are out of favour with their leadership normally get eased out of power in a less controversial way. And there were signs both in 2020 (at the time of her de-selection in Manurewa) and in the last week, that the party was successfully keeping the grievances inhouse.
Why is Wall speaking out? For her own legacy, it might well have been better for Wall to keep silent on the divisions within the party and the degree of dysfunction between herself and the Prime Minister. After all, her party has come up with a very generous retirement package, and she’s had the opportunity to go out on a high, mending fences.
Of course, there is still the chance for Wall to do this on Thursday in her valedictory speech, which is likely to be more controlled and statesperson-like than her recent media interviews. Even then, it will be highly uncomfortable for her colleagues. As Martyn Bradbury quips today: “Bets on the PM has an important engagement elsewhere when Louisa Wall gives her speech.”
Nonetheless, it is clear that Wall is still very hurt and angry.
Certainly Labour really doesn’t need a negative focus on its internal machinations at the moment – especially when it is suddenly struggling in the polls. Previously, the perceived unity of the party and Ardern’s integrity have been a powerful part of their electoral success. These are undermined by Wall’s allegations.
Former Labour Party candidate and political commentator Josie Pagani says today that it raises questions about Labour’s culture: “The empathetic, new kind of politics that was promised by the Prime Minister… It just reveals that this is nothing new, this is a bullying culture, this is business as usual in politics.”
Regardless of whose narrative is accepted, the nature of Wall’s departure will simply reiterate to the public the pettiness of the tribal politicians, with Labour seeming no different to the other parties in having dysfunction and division.
Questions about the integrity of Wall’s new job
Perhaps the most controversial element of Wall’s departure – and one that has barely been commented on – is the legitimacy of the Labour Government establishing a job that enables her exit deal.
Last week it was announced that Wall was going to be a Pacific Gender Equality Ambassador, a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It’s a new position, and one for which there are very few details. It gives the appearance of political favouritism, in which a taxpayer-funded job has been created, so that the ruling party of the day is able to get rid of a political problem.
Broadcaster Lloyd Burr has objected to this, saying: “It reeks of John Key’s jobs-for-the-boys which saw a number of his MPs and ministers and officials given cushy overseas postings. But what makes Louisa Wall’s new job so hollow is that it appears they’ve invented this role just so they could get rid of her, and keep her silent.”
Burr says that the lack of transparency in the appointment is very telling: “I’ve asked Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta what Louisa Wall’s remuneration package is, but I’ve had no reply. I should hardly be surprised.”
However, don’t expect the National Party opposition to be shouting “corruption”. They did the same thing – most notably in 2014 when they appointed then Labour MP Shane Jones as Pacific economic ambassador, thereby neutralising one of the Labour’s most effective critics of National.