National list MP and Mt Roskill candidate Parmjeet Parmar wins Simon Wilson’s award for the most emotionally unintelligent politician of 2016 as he weighs up the contest in the byelection phoney war.
Parmjeet Parmar made a constituent cry at an electorate meeting in a Mt Roskill school hall last Monday evening. It was a bit of a surprise. The topic was the living wage, which advocates have set at $19.80 per hour. Parmar said, “Why stop there? Why not make it $50?” She meant that $19.80 was an arbitrary figure but she made it sound like she was saying advocates were being greedy and if they were true to themselves they would be even more greedy.
Then she said, “I know the value of a dollar. I know how to earn a dollar.” Which sounded like she was callously indifferent to the hardships of the working poor – and that’s exactly how the questioner took it when she burst into tears.
Parmjeet Parmar is a cold fish. This is unusual for an MP: good EQ, or emotional intelligence, is generally a prerequisite for getting into parliament. But I’ve watched her at various events: she doesn’t introduce herself to people and nor does she seem to have those “how are you, do tell me about your problems” conversations. When she takes the microphone she says the dumbest things and she doesn’t seem to grasp why an audience might get upset about them.
That Monday evening meeting had been organised by the teachers’ union, NZEI, so education questions were common. Asked whether the government had research to support the use of the currently fashionable large multi-teacher classrooms, Parmar said, “We are spending $11.5 billion on education, so no one can deny education is not well funded.”
She may have been confused by all the groans and shouts, because she repeated it. She may be confused by all of it. After all, when Parmar speaks she does what many of her caucus colleagues do: she channels John Key. What he says, she says, and when she doesn’t know what he says, she doesn’t offer an opinion. But the words are the least of it. Key makes criticism of the thinking behind a living wage sound credible without sounding aloof. Key says the government is doing “heaps” for education without making it sound like it’s all sorted.
Asked about National Standards, Parmar said, “Parents want to see the level of achievement,” which is what Key says and is probably true. She also said, “They don’t want a story. They don’t want to know [about their child], ‘He can do better here, he can do better there.’” What? You can imagine Key and education minister Hekia Parata cringing.
Asked about the Indian IT students who are being deported without completing their studies, because the agents that sent them here did so fraudulently, she said, “The students signed, so they are responsible.”
That’s actually the government’s line, but when Key or tertiary education minister Steven Joyce talk about it they shift the focus onto the difficult work the government is doing to cut down on immigration fraud. They stress the complications and they speak in sympathetic tones.
Asked about spending more on affordable housing, she said, “Any more money has to come from somewhere else. We have to take it from the social sector, like education or health.” Another moment for audience splutter. It’s hard to imagine either Key or finance minister Bill English reducing the argument to housing vs education.
Does Parmjeet Parmar care? She should, and not just because she’s going to lose: Labour has a poll that puts their candidate, Michael Wood, 30 points ahead, at 58 to 28. That’s a spectacular fail in an electorate where National won the party vote in 2014 by 2000.
Worse for her, she’s been abandoned. Very few front benchers have turned up to support her and there have been no policy announcements that she could use in her campaign.
Why? Perhaps they didn’t fancy Parmar’s chances anyway. Perhaps they didn’t want the byelection to become a referendum on the government’s popularity. Both reasons seem pertinent.
The job of fronting for the party has largely been left to Rodney MP Mark Mitchell, a senior backbencher with his eye on a cabinet post in the next reshuffle. Mitchell has become the party’s go-to guy in these situations: he also ran the launch of Vic Crone’s mayoral campaign. You’ve got to figure these gigs can’t really be doing his reputation a lot of good.
Parmar doesn’t live in the electorate and became an MP in 48th place on the National list. She’s done nothing to suggest she should be promoted next time round, and if she gets shunted any lower she will risk missing the cut.
Meanwhile, Michael Wood is heading for parliament. It’s easy to see him as a Phil Goff clone: a hard-working local politician with good relationships in all the demographics of the electorate. Those things are true. Wood has done his time on the local board of council and carried the flag for Labour in unwinnable seats like Epsom. He’s worked for Goff and they are close personal friends.
But Wood is on the progressive side of Labour and Goff on the conservative side. And Goff has kept his distance from Wood’s campaign. That was most obvious when Labour leader Andrew Little came to town recently to announce Labour’s policy to run light rail down Dominion Rd to Mt Roskill.
Goff campaigned for light rail during the mayoral election but he didn’t turn up for the Dominion Rd event. He’d run in the Auckland marathon that morning, said his spokesperson, and was now at home.
It wasn’t really surprising that the new mayor, a former long-serving Labour MP, was keeping his distance from the party. He wants to project an image of being above all that now. But it was surprising that Goff didn’t even support the policy. When asked, he said the council couldn’t afford it.
In fact, Little didn’t consult with Goff and only told him about the policy the day before. That’s astonishing. (Update: Labour sources advise that Goff was sent a briefing on the announcement four days earlier, but not by Little, who called Goff only the day before.) The cost issue would have been easy to resolve because both Labour and Goff want new funding models to be introduced. What should have been easy runs on the board for Little, Wood and Goff turned into an awkward breakdown in communication.
Mind you, they did better than Parmjeet Parmar, who said there was nothing wrong with expecting the buses to handle the demand. If she’d been anywhere near a bus recently she would know their capacity to cope is already badly stretched.
Despite his status as frontrunner, Michael Wood is campaigning hard. His goal is not just to win but to transform Mt Roskill back into a Labour stronghold. His party should take note. He’s proving the benefits of solid local experience and a good ground game. And he has not (as has become fashionable in some quarters) foresworn his commitment to progressive solutions for Auckland’s problems, in particular the compact city and the citywide improvements to public transport, cycling and walking options that it requires.
Does he have a bright future in the party? Labour needs to win back Auckland if it is to win the country, and while it has hard workers in its front ranks in this city, including Louisa Wall and Phil Twyford, it has only one real shining star: Jacinda Ardern. Wood does well enough with the EQ but is he capable of helping her lead a Labour renaissance in this city? Hard to say.
Meanwhile, as the phoney Mt Roskill war plays out, the real one, the 2017 general election, has already begun. And it’s National, not Labour, making the early running. High-flyer Nicola Willis has announced she will challenge the mediocre list MP Paul Foster-Bell for the Wellington Central nomination, apparently with John Key’s blessing. That’s a signal of serious intent, right there. National also has some extremely talented young hopefuls in Auckland, including the former president of the Young Nats, Sean Topham, and Harvard-educated economist Dan Bidois. Both are likely to seek winnable seats.
Of course, in politics and especially in National Party politics in Auckland, the big party machine doesn’t always run smoothly. There were several high-flyers jockeying for favour in the party in order to replace Murray McCully as MP for East Coast Bays, but in the end he chose his own successor: she’s Erica Stanford, one of his own staffers.