Telling Carter to go while protecting Hawkins is a mistake
Overall Labour leader Phil Goff has handled the impact of his MP Chris Carter's brain explosion reasonably well. Carter's antics, which have included sending an unnamed gossip sheet to the parliamentary press gallery yet addressing the envelopes in his own handwriting, must go down in New Zealand political history as one of the most inept attempted coups ever. It has to take a vain individual to start an whisper campaign against his leader, when the said individual secretly wants everyone to know it was him all along.
Goff has made the best of a bad situation, using last week as an opportunity to demonstrate how he can be a decisive and strong leader. While Goff has done well overall, some weaknesses in Goff's public position have begun to emerge. The suggestions from senior MP Trevor Mallard and Goff that Carter is 'unwell' may be an honest attempt to explain the bizarre behavior of the later, however this may rebound on Labour if Carter and Government MPs accuse Labour of bullying. Better to state the facts of Carter's behaviour and let the public work that one out for themselves.
The second weakness is the apparent differing treatment of Carter and long time Labour MP George Hawkins during this affair. In his gossip sheet to the gallery Carter alleged unionist Jerome Mika was looking to challenge long time Hawkins for his Manurewa seat, and that Hawkins was threatening a byelection if the challenge went ahead. Significantly, Hawkins refused to deny this was the case when he was questioned about this by journalist Rebecca Wright.
Not only did Hawkins chose to comment on an issue that should have been immediately redirected to the press office of his leader, he did so in such a way that confirmed 'all sorts of rumours'. I am not saying that Hawkins conduct is on the same scale as Carter but the underlying issues at stake are similar.
Goff has criticised Carter for having a sense of entitlement. From the looks of things you could say exactly the same thing about Hawkins sense of entitlement to his seat. Hawkins said that it wouldn't be the first time someone with political ambitions has eyed his safe Manurewa electorate as an easy way of getting into Parliament. That goes for staying there too George.
While acknowledging the seat was subject to a party selection process, Goff sent a message of support to Hawkins by saying "I am confident that George is well supported by the people in his electorate and that he would be confident of being elected even if it was contested". At the same time Goff has called on Carter to resign his Te Atatu seat as he no longer represents the Labour party. The danger is that the Te Atatu electorate committee could also demonstrate support for their troubled MP, as they have now done so.
For these reasons, and some potential legal difficulties in expelling Carter from the party, its good to see some Labour figures backing of this threat for now. A plea bargain of sorts may emerge, perhaps along with a lighter punishment like suspension, where Carter promises not to publicly comment on the leadership of the party, not to travel or be involved in any way in the selection of a new candidate for Te Atatu. Carter has already said he will not stand at the next election. Better to state the facts of Carter's behaviour and let the public work that one out for themselves.
It would a great shame if Hawkins held on for another three years on the back of Carter's stupidity. When now Act MP Roger Douglas resigned his Labour seat in 1990 he anointed Hawkins has his successor, and Hawkins has been a member of the right wing faction in Labour ever since. After a single bumbling term as a minister between 1999 and 2002, Hawkins was quietly told to stand aside as a minister before others made the decision for him. Hawkins career isn't going anywhere, and Manurewa stands as one of the most obvious electorates where rejuvenation is required.
I have only briefly met Jerome Mika, so I don't feel I can comment on his suitability as a candidate. I have heard he is not lacking in ambition, and that he is such a natural at 'working a room' that he sometimes does this at work. Recognition among some of South Auckland's large industrial sites, along with support from Labour's Pacific networks could make some interesting numbers. He may not win the nomination, but Jerome would help send a message.
To my mind the worst thing for Labour would be the appearance of an attempt by head office to stop the challenge to Hawkins, as this would only give Carter's outbursts more credibility and highlight the differing treatment of Carter and Hawkins. Either Hawkins should face the challenge with a little more grace than he has demonstrated so far, or he should announce his intention to stand aside at the next election. The later would also allow alternative candidates to emerge - a more open contest can only increase the chances of Manurewa getting the kind of MP its healthy majority deserves.