John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Arduous week saps Shearer's strength

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David Shearer. Photo / Paul Estcourt
David Shearer. Photo / Paul Estcourt

If there were any lingering doubts about whether David Shearer's political honeymoon is finally over, they were expunged by what has been little short of the week from hell for the Labour leader.

Two opinion polls last Sunday contained morale-sapping rebuffs for Labour with the gains the party was confident it had made on National since last year's election seemingly melting away.

In a clear breach of Labour caucus protocol to keep arguments in-house, the party's Mangere MP Su'a William Sio then publicly bagged the gay marriage bill sponsored by his neighbouring MP and colleague Louisa Wall as likely to cost Labour heaps of votes in south Auckland.

That was quickly followed by the surfacing of apparent renewed hostility in some quarters of the caucus towards David Cunliffe, who lost out to Shearer in last December's contest for the leadership.

The off-the-record remarks of a couple of unnamed senior MPs carried on TV3's website produced a feeding frenzy on the political blogs, leaving Labour activists deeply disturbed the party was again doing its dirty washing in public but confused as to whether Cunliffe, who has been on holiday overseas, was actually mounting a coup against Shearer.

That is highly unlikely - at least in the short-term.

It is unclear whether the MPs' musings were simply residual animosity from Cunliffe's undermining of Phil Goff's leadership in the run-up to last year's election. The former is said to have been finance spokesman in name only so sparse was his contribution. The consequent lack of trust in Cunliffe was further deepened by a speech by him in April which was widely seen as a grab for control of the party's left faction. That resulted in Shearer confronting Cunliffe at a subsequent caucus meeting, which saw the bulk of MPs coming down firmly on Shearer's side.

The bitterness regurgitated by the anonymous MPs who spoke to TV3 looks to have backfired however by re-stoking debate about Shearer's capacity to do the job of leader.

Those looking for conspiracies are going as far as suggesting an elaborate plot is under way to replace Shearer with Grant Robertson, his deputy.

What is not in question is that the ructions completely overshadowed Shearer's midweek launch of a sustained campaign by Labour to win back the "heartland" - the provincial cities and towns where elections are won and lost.

The launch was the culmination of weeks of careful planning and extensive research by Shearer's already-stretched staff. Copious amounts of official data were collected and collated to measure the progress in every region - or rather the lack of it - across a number of economic and social indicators following more than three years of a National Administration.

Labour is hoping the material will jolt voters out of their seeming sense of resignation that while things are not that crash hot in economic terms, they could be a lot worse and it is better to stick to the status quo.

However, that mood, which Labour is finding so difficult to shift, is reinforced by Labour only offering voters a gamble on a still largely unknown proposition who has said little about the direction he would take the country as prime minister.

With National having cleaned up its act and no longer offering opponents rich pickings from self-inflicted blunders, the focus will shift back to Shearer and how well he is performing as the leader of the major Opposition party.

He is in need of an issue of high public relevance which he can make his own. With the Greens and NZ First leaping aboard anything which threatens to make headlines, that is not easy. Yet, it is Labour which gets the blame when the Opposition is seen as ineffective or simply absent without leave.

Leaders of the Opposition are always hostage to the polls. The very real danger for Shearer is that repetition of the results of last Sunday's polls will see the "Mr Invisible" title becoming impossible for him to shake off.

Other unsuccessful Leaders of the Opposition - Bill Rowling, Jim McLay and Bill English - were handicapped by their intellect and reasonableness which made it difficult for them to find fault with everything their opponent said or did.

The net result of that syndrome is the leader suddenly finds himself or herself less than 100 per cent confident of his or her own party's policy or position. The doubt is immediately apparent in hesitation in the leader's voice and visible in his or her body language, all of which is conveyed in cruel detail by television which demands and gets instant judgement from the watching voter.

The thankless job of Leader of the Opposition requires seeing everything in black and white terms and delivering simple, short and very direct messages.

Shearer knows that. But Labour has a tendency to overcomplicate things. Shearer needs to take a few risks to avoid being stereotyped likewise. He must hammer a few stakes in the ground, some of which will not be always to his party's liking.

He has already copped criticism from within for a recent speech attacking those on welfare who are not "pulling their weight" and are "ripping off the system".

Shearer likewise intends a more centrist pitch in education policy which will see Labour taking far more account of the wishes of parents than teachers. He believes National's Budget-time blunder over class sizes plus the row over unqualified teachers being hired in the yet-to-be-built Act Party-instigated charter schools has destroyed parents' trust in National when it comes to education policy.

However, Key's political pragmatism has ensured there are few such areas where National is thus exposed. The obvious other ones are the cost of living and snail's pace economic growth.

Here Labour is failing to capitalise. David Parker, the party's finance spokesman is seen as too consumed by academic arguments surrounding the balance of payments.

Parker is not alone. As a whole, Labour's front-bench is under-performing. Shearer might thus reshuffle some shadow portfolio responsibilities sooner than he intended to keep his senior MPs on their toes.

He could do a lot of good for himself by shedding some of his laid back demeanour and revealing a streak of mongrel.

He will likely do so within the closed doors of next Tuesday's caucus meeting with a stern lecture about discipline directed at Sio as well as those fermenting trouble on the Cunliffe front.

The public too needs to witness such displays, however - otherwise it will be another case of Shearer out of sight, Shearer out mind.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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