Saturday, March 18, 2006

Fran O'Sullivan: Players in queue behind Clark-Cullen old firm

Michael Cullen is not going to step down as Deputy Prime Minister just because the nation's news media (including the Herald's leader writers) think it's time Labour started thinking about nominating a possible successor to Helen Clark - refreshing both the Labour Government and Cullen.

If anything is ever likely to persuade Labour's key workhorse to dig his toes in for another year or so, it is the thought that when he does stand down - as he must eventually do - that decision will be seen as him marching to the media's tune.

Not his own, nor the Labour caucus, nor, dare I say it, his formidable wife, Annie Collins - she whose voice cut through the ether like a bandsaw when she telephoned in the New Year to remonstrate she did not want her husband to make this parliamentary term his last, as I had written on the basis of one of the good doctor's quick verbal asides.

I've found Cullen pretty equable in my dealings with him this year, if not sharing my view that "bold means bold" when it comes to the type of transformative tax policies needed to get New Zealand rocking economically.

Cullen is not going to stand aside until Clark tells him it's time to shuffle off and prepare himself to be Parliament's Speaker in the event she gets a fourth term. Or, move along so Clark can offer his head to keep a potential leadership challenger at bay in the same way Cullen got his deputy job in the first place

There's no sign that any of Cullen's potential successors as Deputy Prime Minister - Cabinet ministers Phil Goff, Trevor Mallard or Steve Maharey - want to blunt their own leadership aspirations by signalling they want to become Clark's No 2 too early.

She still has the power to "give or deny." That said, the old Clark-Cullen firm is not as impregnable as it once was.

Goff is probably the most politically accomplished of Clark's potential successors. His domestic profile is not as high - or patchy - as Mallard's. Neither is it as bland as Maharey's.

But Clark's attempts to rejuvenate her third term Cabinet from within have been handled less than adeptly and led to some rather unnecessarily bruised egos, including Goff's.

Clark felt sufficiently confident of Goff's continued support - or dismissive of his potential to upset her apple cart - that she offered NZ First leader Winston Peters his prime foreign affairs portfolio as the price of power after the September election.

She then threw Goff a bone by giving him Jim Sutton's Trade Negotiations portfolio, after she persuaded the latter not to offer himself for Cabinet selection. But things quickly got - and still are - rather toey.

Clark tried to persuade Sutton to retire by offering him the "fantastic" job of ambassador to Washington. He decided to stay put because his partner has a good job in Wellington.

So a compromise was forged where Sutton would go to the Hong Kong world trade talks as Trade Negotiations Minister in December, then step down.

Just before Christmas, Clark tossed Sutton a bone by saying he could stay on as a Trade Negotiations Minister for a while as concentrated work was needed to keep New Zealand's interests foremost in Geneva.

Sutton would go up to Davos in January for a gathering of influential trade ministers on the outskirts of the World Economic Forum.

This was too much for Goff, who went in Sutton's place after remonstrating to Clark that he wasn't about to lose the centrepiece of his new portfolio.

Mallard is the interesting one. He is fast picking up a substantial portion of Cullen's economic beat as an Associate Finance Minister, a role he shares with Goff, which will help him prepare for a chance at the deputy's slot if Clark goes on for a fourth or fifth term as Prime Minister.

But Mallard needs to rub off his rough edges. He shares an unfortunate anti-American image - like failed Australian Labor leader Mark Latham - which he will need to remedy.

He also needs to prove himself as an economic dry (as Clark and Cullen are at heart) if he is to retain the confidence of the business community.

Maharey is the darling of the left - but not seen as an election winner.

But it could get messier if Clark continues trying to rejuvenate her side this term.

Labour still wants to persuade the so-called "old-stagers" who lost their electorate seats in September - Sutton, Dover Samuels, Russell Fairbrother and former Senior Government Whip Jill Pettis - to stand down midterm so new blood such as lawyer Charles Chauval and unionist Leslie Soper can come into Parliament as the next on Labour's list.

There's another factor to consider. If MPs like Sutton and Samuels are pushed out, Goff's constituency for a possible run for deputy is lessened.

Both are members of the loose centre-right faction within caucus which has dwindled despite the recent selection of Shane Jones as a list MP.

When it comes to what really matters in Clark's power equation there are few others in whom she could comfortably place so much trust as Cullen. Clark has some grooming to do before she can safely promote a successor - for either of his big jobs.

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