The Labour Party's silence on the Ports of Auckland dispute is getting louder. Robert Winter has drawn attention to this in an excellent post: he says the dispute has become, potentially, the first defining moment for Labour under the new leadership of David Shearer, and they have to 'step up and come out swinging on this issue.'
We wish. What is already remarkable about the dispute is how depoliticized it is, with not just Labour but all political parties keeping well clear of it. It's a far cry from the days when ministers personally intervened in industrial action and Labour politicians sided with striking workers, even joining them on the picket line. Market ideology so controls the commanding heights of this country's politics now that no one wants to get offside with business, or dare to do anything that implies 'the market' can't sort out everything out by itself.
I don't know if anyone has approached Shearer for comment or asked, um, wait a minute, who is Labour's spokesperson on labour issues? I just looked it up: it's Darien Fenton. Who knew? She may well be intensely credible on industrial relations but I don't believe we've heard from her yet on the ports dispute. The only Labourish public figure to even put a fingertip over the trenches so far is Auckland mayor Len Brown, and he has come down on the woolly side of woofterish by declaring resoundingly that he supports both sides.
There is an unhappy echo there of Walter Nash's infamous response to the 1951 waterfront dispute when he was Labour's leader: asked whether he supported the watersiders he said he was neither for nor against them. I have a horrible feeling that Shearer, if he ever does comment, will say much the same thing. Yet, thanks to some useful reporting by Bernard Orsman of the New Zealand Herald, there is much in this dispute that ought to concern a party with the very word 'labour' in its title.
I can no longer deny that every time I think of the current state of the Labour Party the image of Richard Pearse's convertiplane comes into my mind. Long after his failed attempts at sustained flight in South Canterbury in the early 20th century, Pearse devoted all his energy to perfecting this strange aircraft, which though visionary in some respects was clearly never going to get off the ground. It seemed to have far too many moving parts and, in repose, looked like a giant insect with an identity crisis. It drove him mad and he ended his days in Sunnyside mental hospital.
So perhaps I'm being unfair to Labour; maybe, while the rest of us sun ourselves by pool or beach, in between downpours of rain, the shed down the back of the Labour section is actually humming with activity. Let us picture the busy scene: amid the hand-mowers, garden tools and half-used cans of paint, the party's most progressive thinkers, and Trevor Mallard as well, are beavering away on a new model. Never mind that most of the electorate no longer has any idea what Labour stands for: party strategists are convinced that with Kiwi ingenuity, No 8 wire and lashings of aviation glue they can design a convertiparty capable of soaring into the political firmament. Unlike the old model, this baby will fly!
So there it sits in the Labour shed—the convertiparty, still half-built, not yet capable of sustained flight, but a potential world-beater. Above all (and here is the fiendish cunning of the thing) it will be all things to all people. And you thought the Labour Party had lost its way! The only outstanding issue, I understand, is reconciling the aerodynamics of the right wing with the tendency of the left wing to lurch. But technicians are working on this even as we speak.