By Norm Dixon
AUCKLAND — Citing personal reasons and the "corrosive" effects of parliamentary politics, Jim Anderton, leader of the NewLabour Party and the five-party Alliance, announced on November 10 that he was immediately standing down as Alliance leader and would retire from parliamentary politics at the next election, due in 1996.
The announcement came as a complete surprise to many in the Alliance leadership and places the onus on them to prove that the Alliance's growing support is based on more than the popularity of one honest, principled leader.
The Alliance has been going from strength to strength. In the 1993 general election, it won an impressive 18% of the vote although it gained only two seats in parliament. The Alliance campaigned hard for the introduction of a system of proportional representation and voters agreed, passing a referendum to that effect and ensuring NZ's next general election will be conducted under such a system.
In recent months, the Alliance has consistently relegated the Labour Party to third place in the polls. The latest poll put Alliance support at 25%, neck and neck with Labour. Earlier this year in the Selwyn by-election, the Alliance candidate pushed Labour into a poor third place and almost displaced the National Party in a seat long assumed to be one of its safest.
Voters have regularly chosen Anderton as their "preferred PM" in opinion polls. The last poll placed his support in the high 70s. Understandably, his decision to depart suddenly has stunned the Alliance and must impact on the organisation's prospects in the next elections.
In an emotional address to colleagues and the press in Wellington, Anderton surveyed his 31 years in politics: "Like all young, idealistic political activists, I wanted to build a better world for myself, my family and for all New Zealanders ... The major role I played has been as an activist, a builder of political movements and the fabric of policy, ideals and organisation which holds them together."
But this has come at enormous personal cost, he explained. "Politics is, however, an all-consuming occupation. It leaves little room for the normal human activities which individuals and families need to nurture their lives and their relationships."
Shortly after the 1993 general election, Anderton suffered a severe personal tragedy when his daughter took her own life.
"During my daughter's illness ... I seriously considered resigning from politics but was convinced by close friends and colleagues that this would not have served a useful purpose. I have to say that I have lived with that decision since, and my instincts at the time were to leave then and I think that my instincts were right."
Anderton expressed disappointment and frustration at the style of parliamentary politics. "I'm certain that personal tragedy makes one more sensitive, changes your priorities and forces a re-evaluation of what is important. Parliamentary politics has for me personally become a brutalising arena to which I can no longer subject myself. I have found the parliamentary atmosphere since 1993 not only disappointing but corrosive."
Anderton made it clear that the Alliance was much more than himself. "If the Alliance was not in existence, it wold have to be invented. New Zealand is headed in the wrong social and economic direction. Time is on the side of the Alliance because it will ultimately win support for its policy position in a way that probably now can only be guessed ...
"I have the highest regard for the leadership group of the Alliance ... I strongly believe that the Alliance has the strength and depth of talent to not only survive my departure but to gain strength from it."
Anderton pledged his support to his likely successor as Alliance leader, Sandra Lee, who is currently co-deputy leader of the Alliance, leader of the Maori party Mana Motuhake, and Alliance MP for Auckland Central.
Predicably, Anderton's departure was celebrated by leaders of the National Party, the Labour Party, the financial markets and the establishment press. Ninety-day bill interest rates finished at 8.27%, down from 8.4% the day before. The NZ dollar closed at a four-year high against the US dollar, and share prices rose. This glee reflected the ruling class's opposition to the Alliance's policies of higher company taxes, repeal of the anti-union Employment Contracts Act and opposition to privatisation.
The Labour Party and the establishment press have begun to increase pressure on the Alliance to agree to be in a coalition after the next elections, claiming Anderton's resignation makes such as decision more likely. In one of her first utterances, Sandra Lee has reiterated the Alliance's opposition to forming a coalition government with the discredited Labour Party.
Speaking to Green Left Weekly, senior figures in the Alliance leadership expressed confidence that the Alliance would survive and prosper. The celebrations by the conservatives were wishful thinking, they said.
Beginning at the Auckland regional conference on November 12-13, the Alliance would discuss far-reaching organisational reforms and policy positions. The sources told GLW that the Alliance would move towards the formation of a single organisation based on an unambiguously left-wing program.
While the departure of the high-profile, charismatic Anderton would be a setback in the short term, it would focus Alliance activists' attention on policy and organisation. The sources also believe that opportunist and careerist elements hoping to ride into parliament on the coat-tails of Anderton's popularity would now drift away, especially if the Alliance policy shifted further to the left.
The Alliance leadership believes that whatever happens to its standing in the polls, it is guaranteed a minimum of 10 seats in the next parliament, which will put it in an excellent position.