Fran O'Sullivan: Shearer lacks focus out of danger zone

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David Shearer. Photo / Getty Images
David Shearer. Photo / Getty Images

David Shearer has this penchant for retailing war stories about his glory days as a high-paid UN aid dispenser in global hotspots.

Back then, Shearer knew what he stood for.

Maybe it's because his life these days as Labour's leader is so lacking in colour - let alone full of the gutsy forays that used to get his blood running - that he feels compelled to reach back into his past to prove to New Zealanders that he has the cojones to lead his rather lacklustre party.

This week he retailed a yarn about driving into Liberia with a Dutchman just after he'd heard there was cannibalism in the area.

"I asked him, 'Is there anything to what they're telling me about the cannibalism?' The response was that was a huge exaggeration." But, said Shearer, "He went on to say, 'All they do is, after killing, quickly open the victim's chest, and eat the still-beating heart.'

"He then said, 'That sounds a lot like cannibalism, I guess'."

How is it, then, that this man who professes to have faced down Somali warlords and traded yarns with a Liberian cannibal remains so lacking in certitude (let alone bravado) when it comes to fleshing out his position on hot issues on the home front.

I found myself wondering this week whether Shearer - who notoriously hates wearing a suit and tie - really only gets supercharged when he is wearing a flak jacket. He fluffed his way through a punchy interview on NewstalkZB when host Sean Plunket tried to pin him down on Labour's position on the Maori Council's controversial water rights claim.

The Shearer argument went something like this: Yes, John Key is inflaming things by rarking up the Maori Council and saying his Government won't be bound by any Waitangi Tribunal ruling on the push to stop the Mighty River Power share float until a deal is done in this area. But, no, Maori don't have a valid water claim. Nobody owns water. We pay for water rights to use water, whether it be for irrigation or hydro-electricity or whatever.

In other words, Key is right but I don't want to say so because my party expects me to go into opposition mode at every opportunity.

There are plenty of other examples.

Shearer's opposition to foreign investment in New Zealand farmland was also rather contrived. When Labour's private polling indicated widespread public unease over the Shanghai Pengxin acquisition of 16 dairy farms, he chose to lift the scab off this running sore rather than pour on salving balm. Though privately he is not that fazed. Same too with partial privatisation of state-owned power companies.

Shearer held up Norway as a shining exemplar of what's possible when it comes to developing a small nation economy. Yet many Norwegian SOEs are partially listed; the country has also built its fortune on oil.

Shearer should not have backed himself into these ideological corners.

Right now he is trying to extricate himself on the mining issue after the Herald's bellwether poll showed that New Zealanders have warmed to the prospect of surgical mining to leverage the country's valuable natural resource base: reversing himself out of the poll-driven cul-de-sac that he parked himself in when public opinion was running in the other direction.

Shearer needs to get out of this poll-driven mode. He is fundamentally an intelligent man who is at heart an internationalist. There is no shame in agreeing with the Prime Minister on some basic fundamentals. Both men are trying to capture the centre, after all.

At NetHui he said New Zealand needed to be bold. The next government had to be reformist and prepared to make the big progressive changes needed to rebuild the economy. He warned that if this did not happen, New Zealand stood a fairly good chance of becoming a 21st century peasant economy. Problem is he could not fill in the detail.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce wasn't much better. Neither man had the complete package.

But in Shearer's case he faces competition for the political space.

His real enemy is not Key, or even Joyce, but Green co-leader Russel Norman.

Where Shearer and Joyce were boring and unconvincing, Norman was focused and succinct. While Labour vacillates and wastes its firepower on unfocused oppositional and short-sighted politics, the Greens are carving out a cogent message.

No one is in any danger of not knowing what they stand for. Shearer take note.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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