John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: The face of the next Government

David Shearer (right) pictured with Greens co-leader Russel Norman, fronted the hikoi on asset sales, though he gained nothing from it. Picture / APN
David Shearer (right) pictured with Greens co-leader Russel Norman, fronted the hikoi on asset sales, though he gained nothing from it. Picture / APN

David Shearer deserves his chance to one day lead NZ

David Shearer is an easy fellow to meet - quiet, interested, thoughtful, a good listener. I've met him only once, not long after he was elected Labour's leader, and I think I did all the talking.

This is probably not a good thing. Leadership comes in different styles but all of them make it evident at first meeting. Shearer seemed a normal guy who is not a natural at the arts of politics. For that reason I'd like to see him succeed.

Not too soon, of course. John Key is doing good things and if he continues the way he is going he will deserve the three terms New Zealand voters usually give a government. But Labour's turn will come and when it does I hope Shearer is still there.

Many feel the same way, I think. He is like a blank canvas that could be a work of art.

Image-makers have told him through newspapers to get rid of the frizzy hair (he has) and never undo the second button on the shirt. Impatient Labour people are telling him to take some positions, show the country what he stands for.

Yesterday he made a speech that was billed to do just that. It is on Labour's website. I don't recommend it. It reads like a speech-writer's hack job.

It contained one good decision, the dropping of last year's election promise to resume contributions to the Cullen fund without a Budget surplus. That has gone into the silly bin with the removal of GST from fresh food. But otherwise it was standard criticism and empty resolutions. It was not the candid, thoughtful, personal speech I'm waiting to hear.

This is a man who has forsaken a career to go into politics for a reason and we don't know what it is. After just three years in Parliament his party made him its leader and we don't know why. Effectively he has been designated our next Prime Minister. What does he want to do?

Possibly he has not been in politics long enough to know the power of his position now. Leaders define parties. He can take Labour where he feels it should be and tell his caucus to follow him or find someone new. That is what Prime Ministers do. Key essentially gave that message to the country at the last election, defying it to dump him over asset sales. The country made its decision and that argument is over.

It will gain Shearer nothing to be out front in the hikoi against asset sales and this week he let us know he knew it, fronting in sweatshirt and jeans with the shirt hanging out. It must have been his day off.

Successful prime ministers have only one thing in common: self-belief. And sometimes they didn't appear to have it until they became Prime Minister. Helen Clark was an awkward, diffident, defensive personality, in public at least, until election night 1999.

The votes that night were like balm to her. She relaxed, bloomed and instantly became a Prime Minister born to the role.

Shearer has a lot more going for him than she did when she took over the Labour leadership in similar circumstances. He is already relaxed and likeable in public. But he lacks the confidence of his party that she always enjoyed. Even when she was failing to lift the polls she easily withstood a challenge.

Shearer would not be so lucky. Already he is in some trouble. At Parliament members on the other side are always quick to sense blood across the floor, and they sniff it now.

Shearer's main asset may be that he doesn't mind very much. He didn't seem hungry to lead the party before he was encouraged to stand and if his colleagues change their mind, he would probably nod in his reasonable way and see their point.

But I hope it doesn't come to that because politics should be better. We shouldn't expect Opposition leaders to be prize fighters for the sake of political sport. They ought to be the face of the next government long before the polls turn against the present one.

Shearer should be given room to think and speak on problems that this Government is bound to leave for Labour. One of them is the need to reconcile childcare and women's careers. Babies should not be put into care as quickly as they are. Shearer has time to put his party to work on imaginative solutions.

Another one is tax avoidance. Barely half of those in the top tax bracket actually pay their due. Shearer represents those who do. He has endorsed capital gains tax but should get after trusts too. He doesn't need charisma if he seizes his chance to do something worthwhile.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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