Michele Hewitson Interview: David Shearer

By Michele Hewitson

Opposition leader David Shearer is a relatively green parliamentarian but seems well able to manage political wrestling matches. Picture / Paul Estcourt
Opposition leader David Shearer is a relatively green parliamentarian but seems well able to manage political wrestling matches. Picture / Paul Estcourt

Labour's leader hints at what's beneath his calm exterior: 'You don't wear your guns on the outside'

David Shearer, the new leader of the Labour opposition, is, almost, the weirdest politician I've ever met. I don't mean that he's weird - and that is rather the point, because he isn't.

He seems absolutely, resolutely, normal; straight as a die; neither too far Right nor too far Left (although time will tell); amiable without being effusive; confident without being cocky; a bit blokey without being macho; clever without being one of those alienating intellectuals.

He said, seriously: "I am what I am."

I'm afraid that made me laugh my head off, because who says that? And what the hell does it mean? But, later, after spending an hour and a half with him, and after having transcribed that hour and a half, I concluded that he's probably absolutely right. It's one way of saying what you see is what you get, whatever that means. But I still think he should never say it again; it's seriously awful.

He won't mind me saying so. He says he likes to get advice and he says plenty of people give it, which I took as an invitation by way of a question. How does he think he's doing?

He said: "Oh, good, yeah, I think, in general."

Let's not get carried away then. I told him I saw him on the TV news, over the Crafar farms carry-on, sitting alongside Winston Peters. Had he, I wondered, watched that appearance? He had because: "I sort of wondered ... The question was really about how people saw it. How did you see it?"

I saw it as incredibly awkward. He had to sit there, blinking, for what felt like a very long time, while Winston was asked, and answered, the first question. "Yeah, and you're not quite sure whether to be looking at him or to be looking at the camera."

An accomplished politician, or even a natural one, might not have been so keen to admit to not being sure. I read him a quote from Brian Edwards' blog which said that his telly appearances "bordered on the embarrassing ... Watching him makes you feel nervous and uncomfortable - a fatal flaw." What did he think? "Oh, I think I've got a lot to learn in the way I come across in the media. I can certainly sharpen up. But I don't want to be kind of ... looking like a politician ... slick or anything."

That might have been a poke at the slick as anything PM, but I doubt it. I tried to get him to take a few swipes at various people but while he might be green, he's not silly. The most he'd say about the PM, and I did drag it out of him, was: "Well, maybe he's scary and we don't see it. I don't know."

That was in response to me asking if he understood the PM's popularity, because it would be helpful, surely, to understand it. So, did he? "Not completely." The part he does understand is: "There is the appeal of a person that came after a very different prime minister." He meant, of course, Helen, so he must mean not as scary. Hence that not quite slick swipe at Key.

He has to be a bit scary, or at least possess that killer instinct. Has he got it? He said: "Ha, ha! I knew you were going to say that! I was almost going to say that I knew you were going to say that."

He should have had a good answer ready then. It was: "Yes," and "you don't wear your guns on the outside."

We know about him and guns. He worked in dangerous countries, as we all know, for the UN and Save the Children, and once told a "good story" about how he asked his bodyguards to give him gun training so that if they were taken out he could, presumably, grab one of their guns and shoot the baddies.

He's said that a bodyguard told him he was "good enough to be in the team!" The exclamation mark is mine. I may have read this back to him in a slightly mocking way, because that really is tough-guy stuff, so how else could you read it? "Well, you know, I hit the target! So what am I going to say?"

He knows the value of a good back story. He says the PM has a good one: "rags to riches." His might be even better: did he really save 50 million lives? That Key went overseas and made 50 million dollars and he went overseas and saved 50 million lives was a line doing the rounds during the leadership battle with David Cunliffe (they get on terribly well, of course, and of course there is no animosity - I should have known better than to have asked.)

The answer is "no". Well, where did it come from then? "I don't know! You're the journo!" All right, how many lives did he save? Any? "Um. Not personally!" That made the journo laugh immoderately, which made him just the tiniest bit defensive, the journo thought.

He told me a longish story about working for Save the Children in Somalia and heading a team feeding 30,000 starving children. "So when you look back on your life and you think these people who would now be in their 20s are alive because of the work we did ... Which is pretty neat." That's a nice story, of course it is. I was sorry to have to be a journo but I had a not-so nice follow-up question: is that better than going overseas and making $50 million, did he think? He gave me a look which was more Helen than Phil. He said: "I don't know. Now, that's not right. That's not a fair comparison."

Oh, he'll have to put up with worse than that if he wants to be the next PM so he can take it as a free bit of media training. I asked who was training him and he wouldn't tell me. Not Sean Plunket, anyway. He said I could come and give him some training and I asked, sweetly, who I'd be replacing. "Ha, ha. You'd be an addition. A valuable addition." That was nicely done, so he's learning.

He needs to unlearn a few things - his bone-crushing hand shake, for one. He says he learnt this handshake when he was about 10. It was passed on by his dad, a Presbyterian elder and lifelong National voter, who told him that a firm handshake, delivered while looking the other chap, or chapess, in the eye was important. All I know about that is that if I meet him again I'll be putting my hands safely in my pockets, I can tell you.

What does such a handshake convey (other than manliness)? That you can trust this man, because he has a firm hand and he looks you in the eye. Another thing he is: honest without being particularly revealing, and that is because he has nothing to reveal, or rather, nothing to conceal.

The only thing he got a bit funny about was telling me whether or not he prayed. He believes in God, as some sort of higher being, but he doesn't regularly attend any church. The reason he got a bit funny was because telling me when and what he prayed for was: "Oh. This is a bit personal." He doesn't believe in Hell. He does believe he will "be reconnected" with his dad. "I'm not sure how that happens, but, you know, I suppose it is the afterlife or something."

He told me, because I asked, that he once voted for the Nats - it was his first vote. If I was him I'd have lied and said I'd voted Labour all my life. Nobody would have known; it is a secret ballot, after all. He was appalled at the idea. "But then I would have lied, wouldn't I?" But I wouldn't have known it to be a lie. "That would be a lie, wouldn't it?" I was only teasing him, really, but he proved almost impossible to tease. He is a serious fellow. He might be a do-gooder, too, in a sort of manly way. He agreed that do-gooding has an interfering connotation. It would make him sound too nice, perhaps.

That seems to be the consensus, but it was the consensus about Phil Goff, too, for all the good it did him. (I never heard anyone claim that was the generally agreed upon, enduring impression of Helen Clark, or David Lange, for that matter.)

Is he nice, or nicer than Phil? "He's a very nice man." But is he nicer than him? He said I'd have to ask Phil, which obviously I'm not going to do. So I'll answer my own question like this: after an interview with Goff I got a sweet little peck on the cheek; from his successor I got another of his handshakes.

Comparisons, if not odious, are not terribly helpful, and I hadn't set out to make quite so many. But he's hard to fix in your mind. I can't quite work out why.

Everyone used to bang on about how good-looking Key was, which I never understood. I'll stick my neck out and say that Shearer is better looking (if it matters and it may), although not in any flashy way, and certainly not in any way that translates to the telly. And I bet he doesn't turn up at another event with his shirt unbuttoned as he did at the Big Gay Out.

He said, slightly snippily, that it was a hot day and that he does get around on hot days with his shirt unbuttoned. That just made it worse, I said. He said he probably wouldn't do it again: "Now that you've told me."

Other than getting around unbuttoned in public, as the Leader of the Opposition, he thinks his point of difference is that he has no political baggage and that he therefore approaches politics "slightly differently than perhaps politicians have in the past". He said an odd thing for a politician: "I've never wanted to be a politician, as such. I've wanted to make a difference." He said: "I'm going to try and be a bit different."

Yes, but different from which politicians? It does now occur to me that asking how he differs from Goff was the wrong question.

A better question might have been how does he differ from Key? Time will tell on that one, too. I certainly can't. But I once interviewed a new party leader who seemed normal, amiable and confident; a weirdly unlikely politician with no political baggage, who had spent most of his successful career overseas ... And I remember thinking: nice enough chap, hard to fix in your mind, though.

- NZ Herald

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