John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Shearer takes reins of a different beast

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

Scanning the packed upstairs function room in Wellington's Wellesley Hotel on Thursday morning, a newspaper photographer with long experience of the habits of politicians summed up what was going on with a pithy observation: this was not your typical Labour Party audience.

Indeed. If you were looking for symbolism surrounding David Shearer's first really significant speech since becoming Labour's leader, you did not have to look far.

Entry to the breakfast-time meeting brought a choice between mini-croissants stuffed with Camembert cheese and small glasses of muesli mixed with yoghurt.

In the midst of one of the most bitter industrial disputes in recent history, here was the leader of the Labour Party addressing the employer clients of a Wellington lawyer in a hotel which not that long ago was home to one of the capital's more refined gentlemen's clubs.

That will not go unnoticed in some quarters of the party, especially given the time Shearer took to come off the fence with regard to the protracted battle over union rights at the Ports of Auckland.

But what better way to underline the message that Phil Goff's excursion into territory on Labour's left is over and the party is shifting back to the centre.

The speech did not even bother to pay homage to Labour's past - something every other Labour leader has felt constantly obliged to do.

That itself was confirmation that Shearer-led Labour is going to be a very different beast from its most recent incarnations.

True, much of what Shearer had to say was wrapped in repeated reminders that what he was flagging was not yet party policy and would not be so until much closer to the election.

This seeming reticence disappointed some observers. But the conditional statements had to be read in the context of Shearer needing to slowly acclimatise the wider Labour Party to major change, rather than force change upon it.

He is still an unknown quantity for many in the party. He needs to build trust in his leadership.

Regardless of his many talents and undoubted ability to grow into the job, he became leader only because the perceived deficiencies of the more senior candidates left the Labour caucus paralysed as to choice.

But Thursday's speech contained enough hints of a change in the party's direction to put several feral cats among Labour's pigeons.

It made it clear Shearer will ditch policies that made Labour feel good about itself but which left voters cold - policies like Goff's "tax-free zone" for the first $5000 of income, the promise to remove GST from fresh fruit and vegetables and the manifesto commitment to introduce a new top tax rate on income above $150,000.

One policy from the Goff era will survive. Shearer wants a capital gains tax for economic reasons, not social ones. However, his support for it gives him more latitude to reverse some of the party's ideologically-driven tax policies.

Perhaps most significant of all was the speech's incursion into what has been an effective no-go area - the seemingly unfettered power of the teacher unions to run a ruler over the party's education policy.,

However, education is central to Shearer's plan to build the "new New Zealand". It was here the speech was at its most blunt in putting bad teachers and badly run schools on notice. He later acknowledged it might be necessary to pay teachers more. It can only be assumed he was reserving any such salary increases for the good ones despite performance pay being viewed with intense suspicion by the teacher unions.

There is a wider political question which Shearer will be asking himself.

When it comes to primary teachers, why is Labour bothering to kowtow to what is a largely white, female and middle class quotient of the voting population which deserted to National in their thousands despite that party's push for national standards?

Shearer intends shifting Labour's mind-set away from not upsetting the practitioners of policy - be they teachers, public servants or whomever - to satisfying the consumers of policy, parents in this case.

Much like John Key, Shearer argues that it does not matter if a policy solution comes from left or right. If it works, then use it. If it doesn't, then dump it.

In Shearer's case, however, such a modus operandi requires more careful application. National's unquenchable thirst for power makes it much easier for that party to take such a pragmatic attitude to policy.

It would be silly to suggest in Labour's case that winning elections comes second to retaining ideological purity. But unlike National, there has always been a natural tension surrounding ideology and the crude exercise of power.

While Shearer has finally put some markers in the ground, his opponents believe that tension will result in him running into serious difficulties when he has to put some policy flesh on those markers.

Shearer is going to find the going harder for other reasons. He has enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon with the media, in part because everyone was waiting for the big speech.

Judging by last Monday's humiliation at the hands of Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking on the subject of overseas investment, plus TV3's highlighting of the Labour leader's stumbles at Thursday's press conference, the honeymoon was already in its final throes.

Shearer can expect such punishment if he continues to be inadequately briefed. Lack of knowledge of the detail can make you sound hesitant and consequently unconvincing.

Shearer is further handicapped by Labour facing unprecedented competition from the Greens and New Zealand First. Russel Norman and Winston Peters are across the media on most issues. Shearer has to defer to whichever colleague is his party's spokesman or woman.

Adding to his profile problems is his reluctance to engage in "gotcha" politics. He believes New Zealanders are sick of politicians indulging in petty point-scoring over trivial matters.

He may well be right. Shearer wants to present himself as a different kind of politician - one who is seen as putting the national interest ahead of petty party politics.

The risk in doing so is that he ends up not being seen at all.

But his opponents are at risk, too, of underestimating him.

Behind that affable exterior and ready smile is a steel-trap mind and a steely resolve. He did not enter Parliament just to keep the leather seats warm.

He knows he is inexperienced. He will listen to advice. But at the end of the day, he is going to do the job his way - and Thursday's speech was ample testimony to that fact.

- NZ Herald

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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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