I like David Shearer. He’s nice. On the one or two occasions that I’ve met him, he’s struck me as unpretentious, warm, natural, sincere. These are the qualities that make him attractive as a future leader of the Labour Party. And, in the now popular terminology, borrowed from the world of soap operas, his ‘back-story’ suggests both organisational competence and idealism.
David Lange had some of these qualities. But like so many political shooting stars, he burnt out quickly.
Helen Clark lacked Shearer’s engaging warmth. But her long political apprenticeship and iron will rewarded her with three terms as Prime Minister.
You can see where I’m going. Praising Shearer’s freshness and dismissing his lack of experience in the bear pit of the Debating Chamber as irrelevant has almost become the norm in comparing him with Cunliffe. I was on that side of the argument myself when Shearer first threw his hat in the ring. But I’ve changed my mind.
Shearer has had nearly three years to demonstrate his skill as a debater and about a fortnight to provide some evidence of competence in handling the media. He has done neither. His television appearances have bordered on the embarrassing. He lacks fluency and fails to project confidence or authority. Watching him makes you feel nervous and uncomfortable – a fatal flaw.
My problem is that I just can’t imagine him on his feet in the House footing it with the Prime Minister or any of his hugely experienced lieutenants. And a Leader of the Opposition must have a mastery not just of his own portfolios but of every portfolio. Clark had just such a mastery, but it was the product of 18 years experience in the Debating Chamber before she became Prime Minister.
This is an interesting analysis of Shearer by Brian Edwards. He's especially tough on Shearer's television persona. But surely Edwards, a long-in-the-tooth media professional could change that? Apparently not; if he thinks that he and Callingham could, he's not saying.
He then turns to Labour's current dilemma:
And then there’s Cunliffe. We’re told there’s a group in the Labour caucus whose ABC mantra is ‘anyone but Cunliffe’. It’s hard to imagine a more childish or stupid approach. Your job, ladies and gentlemen, is to choose someone who can win the next election, not someone who makes you feel warm and fuzzy. And when you’re making that choice you might like to consider this fact: above almost everything else, Kiwis like leaders who project strength. Kirk, Muldoon, Clark are prime examples. None of them was particularly ‘nice’. Rowling, Lange and Goff were ‘nice’. QED.
Cunliffe may or may not be nice, but he is hugely experienced, has an in-depth understanding of policy, conveys confidence and authority, handles the media superbly and can make mincemeat of anyone on the other side of the House. His ambition should be seen as an advantage not a disadvantage.
My instinct is that the Labour Party is about to make a huge mistake. Their logic, I suspect, is that they must replace an unpopular leader with a popular leader. But it is shallow thinking. What the next Leader of the Opposition must be able to do is best and bring down John Key. That really isn’t a job for ‘a nice guy’.
So will David Shearer ever be Prime Minister of New Zealand? I think it’s entirely possible. Making his run too soon will, however, do nothing for his future prospects.
Making mistakes is nothing new for the Labour Party. Phil Goff these days reckons that it was a mistake to sell assets in the 1980's. Trevor Mallard admitted that his slagging off of the Exclusive Brethren in 2005 was a mistake. And it is generally agreed that the succession of Helen Clark by Phil Goff on Helen's say-so was a mistake.
It will be interesting to see whether Edwards' piece influences any of the MP's who will be voting in the Labour leadership contest. Perhaps it's not as simple as ABC after all!