Cold day but warm tone at Labour congress

Grant Robertson address the Labour congress. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Labour's election year congress is a chance for the party to spread some warmth after recent controversies - and two of the party's star MPs took the opportunity to take an upbeat tone ahead of the election campaign proper.

After recent rumblings over Labour’s list rankings, the party could have been forgiven for hoping for sunshine and rainbows ahead of their congress in Wellington.

They didn’t get it: instead, a bitterly cold morning forced candidates and delegates towards the coffee van outside Te Papa on their way inside.

However, the mood inside was warmer, with party members taking selfies and chatting.

Anyone unaware of the upcoming election would have quickly caught on, given the number of fundraising initiatives: the Ohariu electorate team was raffling off a quilt, Northland candidate Willow-Jean Prime was selling peanut brittle, and the party itself was spruiking shirts with David Lange’s famous Oxford Union “uranium” quote.

An Otaki delegate took notes in a ringbinder with “Funeral” written on the inside cover but was considerably more upbeat about the party’s prospects than that would suggest, cheerfully greeting each member of the media pack.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester, one of Labour’s most recent examples of electoral success, welcomed delegates with Labour finance spokesman Grant Robertson - both keen to tie the party’s work at a local level to its nationwide prospects.

Lester himself said there was “no greater feeling than winning an election”, suggesting the party’s organisational skills in Wellington, and in recent by-elections, could be applied during the general election.

“We knock on doors, we talk to people, we have candidates that are immersed in their electorates, they’re immersed in their communities.

“They are people that constituents can trust, that constituents know have a philosophy and values that are deeply embedded in New Zealand culture and society.”

The focus of the day was the one-two punch of Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, the duo formerly known as “Gracinda” during their bid for Labour’s leadership positions after the 2014 election.

Now faithfully serving party leader Andrew Little, the pair spoke confidently - Robertson with notes, Ardern off an autocue - about the party’s election priorities.

In a speech light on new policy and in tone, Robertson said New Zealand would be at its best under a Labour government focused on “the building blocks of housing, education and health”.

“At our best, we are a place where we look after each other in times of crisis and in times of prosperity.

“At our best, we are a country where our creators and innovators break the mould, save lives and change the world.”

The elephant in the room, immigration, popped up when Robertson talked about the strain on infrastructure due to rapid population growth - but he was quick to preempt any accusations of racism.

“This is a debate about policy - it is not a debate about immigrants. And anyone who makes it about immigrants, or indeed about their race, must be called out for what they are doing as being wrong and against the values of Labour and the values of New Zealanders.”

A contrast with the party’s “Chinese-sounding names” scandal of 2015? Robertson acknowledged regrets after his speech about how that had been handled - although he dead-batted questions about whether possible coalition partner NZ First was living up to those Kiwi values.

The “doublespeak” of the Government’s social investment approach came under fire, with Robertson claiming the initiative was not about investing in people, but “reducing what the Government sees as liabilities on their balance sheet”.

“This is just National finding another form of words to reduce real people to numbers.”

While Robertson’s speech looked forward to a new Labour government, he also reflected on the past with a tribute to long-serving Labour MP Annette King as she prepares to step down at the election.

Presented with a giant bouquet and a equally large book of tributes, King stayed on script in backing Little and the party despite her ousting as deputy earlier in the year.

I want you to be our next prime minister, we need you to be our next prime minister...so let’s get out there, get those votes and change this government.”

Then it was back to the future, with her replacement Ardern, the party’s young star, setting up her iPhone on stage to livestream her speech to the masses.

Heeding the party’s desire to share more of their candidates’ life stories, the Mt Albert MP spoke about life on her family’s orchard - including a vehicular mishap.

“The first thing I ever drove was a large, red Massey Ferguson. The first thing I ever crashed was a large, red Massey Ferguson, straight into a Nashi tree, another Nashi tree, then into my father.

“He’s OK,” she quickly added.

Also up for discussion were her childhood problems with public speaking, where fear led her to swallow repeatedly until her lip stuck to the top of her teeth.

“All of that might be OK if it was just a matter of looking a little funny, but when your teeth provide this much surface area, it literally meant I couldn’t talk.”

More serious, and more meaningful, was the story she shared when announcing a new policy to roll out on-site health services to all secondary schools, in a bid to tackle rising mental health problems.

“I was only 13 years old when my best friend’s brother took his own life,” Ardern said tearfully.

“Every single thing about it seemed unfair, and still does to this day. Even at my friend’s wedding just a few years ago, the sense of less, of there being a missing member of that family, hung in the air.”

The initiative is part of what Ardern described as “pay it forward” politics, leaving New Zealand in a better state for the next generation.

She may be crucial to the party’s hopes of luring that next generation to the ballot box, as part of attempts to reach the 200,000 “Labour leaners” who didn’t vote at the last election.

Little himself will take the stage on Sunday, expected to unveil a new policy aimed at negative gearing. But Labour will be relatively happy with how the first day unfolded.