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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Shearer 'brave, but right' choice

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New Labour leader David Shearer and deputy leader Grant Robertson leaving with party president Moira Coatesworth after their caucus vote at Parliament, Wellington. Photo /  Mark Mitchell
New Labour leader David Shearer and deputy leader Grant Robertson leaving with party president Moira Coatesworth after their caucus vote at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A very brave choice, but absolutely the right choice. That has to be the verdict on the Labour caucus's election of David Shearer as the party's new leader.

Shearer may lack David Cunliffe's silky communication skills. He obviously lacks the depth of political experience that Cunliffe enjoys.

But the battle for the Labour leadership was not some recruitment exercise to fill a merely managerial role.

It was about picking a leader who could inspire; someone who - to use Shearer's term - could connect with the hundreds of thousands of voters in middle New Zealand who have switched off Labour.

In the end, Shearer had the one vital commodity that Cunliffe lacked. For all his intelligence, strategic thinking, skills and other attributes, Cunliffe could not offer his party the one thing Labour needs from its new leader more than anything else.

Cunliffe was not a fresh face. He was not the clean break from the past that Labour's rather desperate circumstances demand.

The caucus has done the right thing. But it is also a brave decision. Shearer may have huge life experience outside politics. But he has served but a brief apprenticeship as a politician. As Don Brash found out after mounting a successful leadership challenge against Bill English after barely a year in Parliament, experience outside Parliament counts for very little once you are inside.

Even John Key - another fast mover up the parliamentary rankings - had time on National's front bench before he replaced Brash. Shearer has gone from the backbenches straight to the leader's office in one stride.

Shearer will inevitably make mistakes. The caucus will have to tolerate that for a while in the knowledge he will grow into the role.

What the party can guarantee in return is there will be change - profound change both in Labour's structure and direction.

Shearer's first challenge, however, is finding the right job for Cunliffe, given David Parker is a certainty to take over Cunliffe's shadow finance portfolio.

Extremely gracious in defeat, Cunliffe pledged "unconditional" support for Shearer. And why wouldn't he? The initial snarling about Cunliffe not pulling his weight as Phil Goff's finance spokesman has given way to widespread respect for the measured way in which he has performed as a leadership aspirant during the two weeks since Goff threw in the towel.

Cunliffe can afford to watch and wait. If Shearer burns and crashes as leader, Cunliffe is now perfectly placed to replace him.

- NZ Herald

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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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