Clifton: post-mortem on the McCarten fiasco

This is one of the few attempts by anyone in media to have a good look at the Labour intern fiasco – a “post-mortem on Matt Mcarten fiasco” (and the Barclay fiasco) has just popped up on Noted after being in the Listener a couple of weeks ago.

Matt McCarten drove the scheme while working for Labour leader Andrew Little, then when things turned to custard he made a rapid exit, leaving Labour to try and clean up the mess.

At issue here was his grandiose scheme to bring nearly 100 young politics students to New Zealand to work for the Campaign for Change, a movement he has set up to motivate perennial non-voters and vote-shy youngsters to get to the ballot box.

Foreign volunteers typically pay their own way and get billeted. That was the deal for McCarten’s intern army. But the plan was both over-egged and underprepared: he didn’t have enough money committed to look after the students properly; many found their marae accommodation inadequate; some had the wrong visas; others felt they were being exploited; one couple even caught the next plane back home.

And just like National’s Barclay issue, the problem had hatched right under the party’s nose.

McCarten was hardly the covert field marshal. Since at least last Christmas, he’s been telling anyone in proximity how he saw his new job – “I’m gonna raise an army!” – and until recently, he was still in Labour’s part-time employ, while prepping the Campaign for Change.

Little tried to claim he knew virtually nothing about it, which seemed unlikely and still does.

That alone merited careful watching: electoral law and parliamentary funding rules mandate strict boundaries between such projects.

And while keeping an eye on that, party officials should have noticed that despite having been told Labour did not support his intern scheme, he was still doing it in Labour’s name. Anyone who has ever worked with McCarten knows very well that he’s congenitally incapable, when around a meeting table, of hearing the word “no” in so much as it might apply to him.

Yet somehow, he was left to carry on, plastering Labour’s brand and reputation all over a scheme that might have been tailor-made to contradict the party’s core messages. This is the Chinese-sounding-names fiasco to the power of 10.

From now on, anytime anyone mentions sub-standard housing, the living wage, student-visa manipulation, the perils of immigrant labour, exploitation of workers and dubious electoral expenses, Labour’s opponents will have this almighty compound hypocrisy stick with which to beat the party.

Labour will now have to be ultra-cautious they avoid anything that could give opponents a free shot on a number of issues.

Then there’s the ticklish matter of electoral law. McCarten part-funded the scheme with money from a donor whose identity and donation size he won’t disclose, even to Labour. The party risks being deemed to have benefited from that as electoral spending, though it did not want, authorise or control it. It was also misleading that McCarten used the term “fellowship” for the scheme, a term that connotes at least a quasi-formal tertiary-studies orientation, when it was nothing of the kind.

Now, Labour is morally obliged to reimburse the disaffected students’ expenses and pay for those still working here, which could badly dent its campaign war chest. Labour’s donors are entitled to be hopping mad that some of their money will be used not for campaigning but to mitigate McCarten’s folly. Lord only knows what the party will face if the scheme proves to have broken labour or visa rules.

Or electoral laws.

But the most damaging aspect of this affair is what it strobes about Labour’s competence to govern. If it can’t control one known excitable within its ranks, what chance would it have of wrangling New Zealand First and the Greens in a putative coalition?

Labour may think they have successfully kept this fiasco fairly well suppressed, but the media, and many left wingers, are more aware than they had been how shaky Labour’s competence looks.

For Labour, on the other hand, there may be no delay button. The polls are already suggesting that voters don’t think it’s ready to govern. The intern fiasco risks adding a big dump of concrete to the weight of that perception.

Labour avoided it blowing up into a festering public nuisance, thanks to much of the media which seemed to lack curiosity and interest – but this may have been in part because they had already given up on McCarten’s competence, and on Labour’s competence, and on Little’s competence, so didn’t see much point in hammering away at a coffin already in descent.

3 Comments

  1. “thanks to much of the media which seemed to lack curiosity and interest” funny that – never would have thought the NZ Media would overlook, what on the face of it, looked like a juicy political scandal.. but I suppose that is why they are rapidly becoming irrelevant. They are activists and not reporters any more… Anyone wanting reporters will have to look outside of journalism school going forward….

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  July 24, 2017

    Nice last paragraph, PG. Unfortunately you probably over-estimate their intellectual integrity.

  3. Gezza

     /  July 24, 2017

    Clifton nails it again. Jesus I’d hate to be incredibly dum, & in politics, & have her as the editor for 1ewes. Andy’s bloody lucky there!

    I look forward to her piece on Metz. Hope it’s soon.