John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Shearer quite right to be taking his time

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David Shearer. Photo / Christine Cornege
David Shearer. Photo / Christine Cornege

David Shearer is right to hold his nerve. No doubt he is feeling the pressure, but he is wisely ignoring the mounting criticism that he is failing to take the fight to National, that he is missing in action, that he is too laid back and that he is wasting his honeymoon as Labour's new leader.

There is a danger that perception becomes reality and those labels stick.

But there are good reasons why Shearer should take little heed of this passing chorus of complaint.

The main one is that the moaning will soon be forgotten. In little over two weeks, Shearer will deliver a major positioning speech which will give a much clearer picture of the direction in which he intends taking Labour.

That speech is likely to be bold.

It may yet flag the most significant reorientation of Labour thinking since the party kissed goodbye to Sir Roger Douglas.

So far, Shearer has given little away. But there was a hint yesterday in his remarks about welfare reform that he is planning to shift Labour's stance quite radically in a number of policy areas.

His priority must be getting the speech - it is the first in a series over following weeks - right in terms of effectively communicating what a Shearer-led Labour Party stands for.

Without clarity on the latter, Labour's arrows will continue to bounce off National without doing any harm.

However, refreshing the Labour vision takes time. And time is one comparative luxury Shearer does have.

His critics are guilty of the politics of instant gratification. It is ridiculous to expect a party which has just suffered one of the biggest drubbings in its 95-year history to now suddenly have all the answers.

After being elected leader in December, Shearer made it clear he was not going to rush things. He also knows his relative inexperience in national politics means it is likely he will make mistakes - and that a major one early on could blight his leadership.

The resulting caution has been evident in his stance on the industrial dispute at Ports of Auckland. He was criticised from the left for blatant fence-sitting on what might seem a black-and-white issue for Labour.

But Shearer is simply not prepared to box himself into a corner. That was the mistake Phil Goff-led Labour made a number of times.

Shearer seems determined not to be forced to take positions simply to satisfy traditional Labour constituencies, but which are out of step (or out of touch) with what the great bulk of voters think.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Shearer is going to be a very different kind of leader from his predecessor. Phil Goff was 100 per cent undiluted politician - one of the reasons why voters did not warm to him.

In bucking convention - by not delivering a traditional state of the nation address last month, for example - Shearer is refusing to be pigeonholed.

He is seeking to retain one of his biggest pluses - that voters respond favourably to him as a not-so-obvious politician in much the same way as they do to John Key.

The biggest risk for Shearer now is that next month's speech fails to live up to its billing.

A fizzer would be post-facto justification for the current wailing from the sidelines. But Shearer does not need to be told that.

- 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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