Luke Malpass is Stuff’s political editor.
‘OPINION: “You know what politics is? It’s not whether you’re a bum. It’s whether you’re a smaller bum than someone else.”
In the seminal political documentary Rats in the Ranks, the man grasping to be mayor of Leichhardt for the third time, Larry Hand, gave these words of wisdom.
They were clearly not words heeded by Gaurav Sharma, the GP who became an MP. It is doubtful he has ever watched Rats in the Ranks, because if he had he would have known that he was a smaller bum than just about everyone else in the Labour Party. He also would have realised that, even in a tiny little municipality election in Sydney in the early 1990s, numbers are what matters. The nature of politics doesn’t change.
He also would have understood that in politics there is often a meeting, or lots of small meetings, before the main meeting, where people get together and try to sort out the result in advance. Especially when someone is shaping up to be a Labour rat – although Sharma hasn’t actually voted against the party yet, which is the traditional definition of being a rat.
* Rogue Labour MP Gaurav Sharma says Jacinda Ardern is ‘lying’, wants investigation
* Labour to hold vote on expelling rogue MP Gaurav Sharma after his latest claims about party
* Gaurav Sharma’s real mistake was to think Labour cared
Caucus meetings, like most other things in politics, are governed by numbers. They are not trials, they are simply a vote of peers. And Sharma will now all but certainly be expelled from the Labour caucus on Tuesday, at the latest, and probably from the party in due course.
A short political career will be over. But in the meantime he is going around inflicting as much damage upon the Government as possible and – probably unintentionally – hitting some sore spots where there is a level of public suspicion or weariness of Labour.
It is easy to forget that at the root of Sharma’s complaint is that he refused to be managed in any way after the Labour whips barred him from hiring new staff because there had been issues with his management of them.
The key point is that there has been precisely no new evidence produced to back up any of his original claims, and now he has moved on to panning the prime minister and Labour for running a “kangaroo court” at which he was suspended. He declined to show up, of course, but that is no matter.
He will no doubt be a short-lived hero for some of the political right who think he is standing up to big old Labour and a hero against centralising tyrants everywhere. But there is no point of principle here, no ideological disagreement. In fact, every problem Sharma has seems to revolve around himself and resentment for how he was treated.
He is clearly smart enough to make all his allegations sound plausible if you hear them on the radio and are not really listening properly. But now, according to Newshub, he has started taping conversations with his colleagues.
If trust is the central currency in party politics, he is broke.
All that said, just because Sharma doesn’t appear to be the victim of obvious bullying doesn’t mean there aren’t other MPs in the Labour caucus subject to complaints.
And the thing about both Gaurav Sharma and Sam Uffindell is that they are both very junior backbench MPs. They are massive distractions for their parties and raise different versions of the same issue: candidate selection. The big difference is that Uffindell was given a blue-ribbon National Party seat, while Sharma was in a marginal seat and got swept in with Jacinda Ardern’s landslide in 2020.
The thing that the Sharma mess obscured this week was, perhaps, the very early signs of a bit of economic stabilisation. Wages growth outstripped inflation over the year at 8.8%, but it appears some of that growth at least was from an increase in hours worked.
Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr suggested, in an interview with Stuff, that there is a possibility New Zealand may be reaching the end of its interest-rates tightening cycle. He also admitted the bank could have got some things wrong over the past few years, although he pointed out that it used the best data at the time to guide its interest-rate decisions, as well as its large-scale asset purchases and funding for lending programmes.
“Did we overuse the tools? Did we ease by too much or did we stay easy for too long? That’s a real possibility,” Orr said.
As the long cold and wet winter seems to drag on, Labour is going to try to shift the conversation back to the economy in an attempt to disrupt National’s ever more coherent narrative about what’s wrong with the country and why it’s Labour’s fault. Whether you agree with it or not, National leader Christopher Luxon and deputy Nicola Willis are telling a much better story than National has for a long time, and the Opposition has favourable economic conditions.
For the past few months Labour’s message has been primarily a defensive one, and it has reacted with little bits and pieces. So while trying to explain that inflation isn’t really the Government’s fault and there isn’t much it can do, it then delivered an underwhelming – and temporary – $350 cost-of-living payment at the Budget for those earning under $70,000.
Labour, and Finance Minister Grant Robertson in particular, has been at pains to talk up good indicators – especially compared to other advanced economies – while also trying to say that’s cold comfort for anyone facing higher grocery bills and household expenses. The overall story is that Labour is investing in health, education and long-term reforms that will make New Zealand better.
But that’s a tough sell when a lot of those bigger changes will be seen by voters only over time. And it’s a highly contestable space.
It is a politically tough situation for the Government. Since Luxon took over as National leader, he has built up National’s economic credentials again, after they suffered massive reputational damage in the previous year or so. Labour knows it has to fight back against that.
By Tuesday, Gaurav Sharma will most likely no longer be a Labour MP. He has made clear he won’t be leaving quietly. But where there are rats in the ranks, the numbers will rule all else.