Fran O'Sullivan on business
Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Shearer's vision can unite Labour


Under fire Labour-leader should revisit his debut speech and not be afraid to upset grassroots members.

David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

David Shearer's parliamentary debut as Labour's leader was impressive.

His vision is for a New Zealand known the world over for smart thinking and really smart businesses taking the world by storm.

A New Zealand that is compassionate towards those who need a hand up, that is independent and makes up its own mind on global issues based on its own values.

It is a vision that has widespread appeal to New Zealand businesses and middle-class voters.

It is definitely a vision that is worth a future Labour Government aspiring to and pursuing with passion and verve.

His political hero is former Finnish prime minister Esko Aho who came to power relatively untested but turned his country's economy around with innovation and talent.

This is what Shearer said about his idol: "He thought it was more important to make a difference than to get re-elected ... I can tell you that I have no interest in being a prime minister who just cautiously tinkers."

This was how Shearer set the scene for an exciting leadership.

Unfortunately that vision has been lost sight of. Now Labour activists question whether he has the moxie to get elected in the first place.

The Labour leader is frequently a muddled figure.

He appears intellectually slow in his responses. He has made some very public mistakes as in his failure to ram home allegations that the Prime Minister told porkies over the GSCB involvement with Kim Dotcom.

He doesn't really disagree with John Key over the ownership of water but finds himself compelled to make political mountains out of molehills.

The problem is that Shearer is a reasonable man who is forced to be unreasonable to gain political mileage against the Government. It doesn't come easily.

One year on, Shearer is the subject of a vicious campaign - driven in the main by anonymous Labour-affiliated bloggers - who want his leadership decapitated and the "economic orthodoxies" overthrown that in his heart and his head he subscribes to.

The anonymous decapitation squad would rather install David Cunliffe in his place.

Cunliffe is their darling. He talked a good game during last year's election campaign when he sold the concept of more capital gains taxes.

We already have a limited capital gains tax for property, it is just not rigorously applied. But some of the tax policies unveiled during last year's election would have had unintended consequences.

Importantly, they would not have taken the steam out of the housing market (Australia's capital gains tax has not averted a bubble there) nor would the taxes have raised significant revenue in the short term.

Shearer ordered a rethink.

Even so, it is abundantly clear that Cunliffe would make a much more compelling Opposition leader than Shearer. He is hard-headed. He has been politically blooded. He has Cabinet experience. He is in tune with Labour's base.

The big question is whether he is opportunistic in his policy preferences.

Critics point to the fact he chooses to reside in Herne Bay rather than live in his electorate as proof that he is not really a man of the people.

From a business perspective, its is important to note Shearer is a fiscal conservative.

Earlier on he related how, "Labour went into the election with a fiscal policy that would have seen us borrow more in the short term, return to surplus in the same year as National, then run larger surpluses and pay down debt more aggressively" ... but "New Zealanders told us they were uncomfortable about the rate of borrowing".

A future Government led by him would be a prudent one.

New spending would have to be "paid for out of existing budget provisions, new revenue, or by re-prioritising", he has said.

The fact that he stands for prudence rather than simply printing money makes it clear he is not in the camp that believes there will be any easy post-election windfalls to dish out if he is still Labour's leader at the next election.

But this is not what the activists want. They would rather ramp up the "us and them" divisions and get their guy in charge.

Shearer's speeches are very much in the tradition of a Tony Blair or a Bill Clinton when it comes to economic issues. The business community gets this. They sense his modernity.

He should not be afraid to upset grassroot Labour Party members this weekend - particularly the anonymous bloggers, who get far too much attention.

Shearer should make it clear he has not resiled from the vision he put forward in Parliament soon after his colleagues voted him leader. That vision is far more likely to capture middle-class votes that simply playing to "our people".

It could also yield good results for New Zealand's economy and business.

In his maiden speech as Labour's leader, Shearer said that a beautiful place isn't enough to hold our young here.

"That won't bring the most talented to live here - just to visit. We need innovation, exciting businesses and real opportunities."

It would be good to hear a bit more this weekend on just how a Shearer-led Government would take New Zealand in this interesting direction. That's where the real gains lie for New Zealand business and jobs.

- NZ Herald

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