This piece has been updated after senior Labour Party members met and decided Kelvin Davis’ speech should be open to the media, as is usually the case at annual conferences. This decision was made two hours after Newsroom had published.

In one of its quickest u-turns yet, the Labour Party has decided to make public its deputy leader’s speech to party faithful after earlier defending it being behind closed doors

It’s tradition for Labour’s deputy leader to speak during the open session at the party’s annual conference, but this year Kelvin Davis was shut behind closed doors.

The party’s programme was sent to media on Wednesday evening with the glaring omission.

While the Labour leader, finance spokesperson, party and union spokespeople all had public slots that media could attend, Davis was set down to address only party members.

Davis has a history of courting controversy with some of his speeches.

The most memorable, for all the wrong reasons, was following the 2020 election win for Labour where he recited a strange nursery-rhyme speech slamming the defeated National leader, Judith Collins.

His speech was criticised from people on both ends of the political spectrum, saying it lacked any kindness and those watching online commented saying it was “ungracious” and “mocking” of Collins and her party.

Davis did his best to rectify that a year later at the party conference where he spoke only about Labour, concentrating on what sort of a future he wanted for his great-grandchildren and the type of leadership that was needed to achieve that.

But in September Davis went too far again, this time in Parliament when he told ACT MP Karen Chhour she needed to leave “her Pākehā world” and stop seeing the world through a “vanilla lens’’.

Chhour, of Ngāpuhi descent, said she found the comments hurtful and a personal attack on her identity and mana.

Just a day later Davis phoned her to apologise, which she accepted – he also gave the Prime Minister a heads up that he was planning to say sorry, something she supported him doing.

Two months later, just two days ahead of the conference, Davis was being put behind closed doors for his speech to party faithful.

It raised questions about whether the party was trying to prevent any potentially negative media headlines, and if that was the case then it would mean senior party members feared Davis could go off-script.

In taking him out of the open session it also meant there would be no diversity in the public speeches being heard at the conference.

The open session was scheduled to have no contribution from the Māori caucus or the Māori branch of the party.

It would have left Labour open to the same accusations National’s been suffering of not having diversity – though in this case Labour has plenty of diverse voices, it just wasn’t willing – or aware enough – for any of them to be heard publicly.

Given the number of issues on Labour’s work programme directly affecting Māori that are so often under attack (co-governance, Three Waters, the Māori Health Authority to name a few), it could have been an opportunity to defend and fight back on some of the negative rhetoric that is bedding in.

Before being rectified it was clearly a missed opportunity at a time when Labour is already feeling under pressure with tightening polls and a cost-of-living crisis and record inflation that isn’t letting up.

Senior decision-makers had 24 hours before the conference kicked off to reconsider the message it wanted to send with an election only a year away.

That reconsidering was done in record time and the right decision has been made to give Davis a public platform.

However, characterising the change of heart to media as a “misunderstanding” meaning it was “left off the schedule” is inaccurate.

A spokesperson for the Labour leader had defended the speech being behind closed doors when approached by Newsroom earlier on Thursday.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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