Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Shearer's first party conference do-or-die

David Shearer is feeling pressure ahead of this weekend's Labour Party conference, but anyone who thinks he'll crack "has another think coming".

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

If Helen Clark wondered whether the stress of David Shearer's job was getting on top of him, she got her answer late on Tuesday night when she popped into his office to find him sitting back playing his guitar.

Earlier that night, Clark had spoken at Victoria University and then had dinner with about 20 Labour MPs. Shearer did not go to either event.

He won't say what Clark and he discussed in their meeting, other than that they agreed Opposition leader was "a pretty tough job".

The guitar is his way of relaxing, and the fact that he was relaxed about Clark - a notorious workaholic - catching him playing it speaks volumes.

He barely knows Clark, although he inherited first her electorate and then her job as party leader. His obvious lack of idolatory of her is an indication he is not your typical Labour leader.

For a start, his office lacks the requisite photo of that other Labour icon, Michael Joseph Savage. He says there are a couple in his electorate office; one was left by the previous tenant - Helen Clark - and the other is of origin unknown.

Instead he had a framed photo of himself delivering his reply to the Budget this year. It was given to him by his caucus colleagues, who all signed it.

Some of them are in the photo, roaring with laughter around him.

It was taken just after he accidentally called Speaker Lockwood Smith "Mr Australia".

He managed to salvage the situation with a joke, but those verbal bumbles and awkward manner of speech have been the most criticised aspects of Labour's new leader in the first year of his leadership.

Partly because of that, Shearer's first party conference this weekend is shaping up as a do-or-die affair.

The lead-up to it has increased the already intense pressure Shearer was under. There were calls from the blogosphere, from sites generally considered friendly toward Labour, for him to step down and claims he could not handle the job.

One said he could not handle the stress. Shearer just laughs when he's asked if this is true. He can "absolutely" handle the stress.

"If they think I'm going to crack, they've got another think coming."

Ah, the bloggers. Shearer wants to dismiss it as background noise, saying that that is all it is worthy of.

"The influence of people sitting anonymously in front of computer screens behind darkened curtains is not something I think we should be taking as seriously as we do."

He characterises it as "certainly a concerted effort to attack right before a Labour Party conference".

National minister Nick Smith described the problem concisely in Parliament this week, saying the public would decide Labour was getting so caught up in its internecine battles that it had no chance of running the country.

Shearer concedes that ongoing speculation about Labour's leadership by its own kind is destructive.

"What it means is it takes the attention of the media away from the issues we want to talk about. We should be projecting what the concerns of New Zealanders are, not looking inward on ourselves.'

However, he was energised, rather than demoralised by the affair.

"Because we've come through it in a much stronger way - we're a more united team."

Across the hallway from Shearer's office, his deputy Grant Robertson makes up for the negligence on the Savage front with a huge canvas of Savage in his reception hallway.

Robertson had initially considered standing as leader himself, but opted instead to stand on a ticket as deputy first with Parker, and then with Shearer after Parker stepped out of the race to make way for Shearer.

That incident alone should make Shearer rather suspicious of Robertson, but instead Shearer relies on him.

There is a theory that Shearer is too trusting, that the former aid worker's leadership experience at the United Nations was forged in the very different climate of war zones where trust was a necessity and leadership a position earned by hard work rather than bestowed by colleagues in a popularity contest.

Shearer had also been out of the country for years before becoming an MP, leaving him with little awareness not only of the political and social changes in New Zealand, but also no handle on the alchemy of the Labour Party. He lacked the extensive network of contacts many of his colleagues had, leaving him reliant on the judgment of others to put together his team.

Shearer says he does trust his colleagues: "Ultimately your job has to be built on trust or you can't function. That's the way a team works."

Leadership, he says, "is about vision and direction and an ability to bring people around you". That applied both at the UN and with Labour. Where the roles differed was predominantly in the public profile.

"In most new jobs you spend some time getting your feet under the table and getting things organised. Here, you do that on the front page of the paper. That's the difference."

He concedes he might need to show a bit of mongrel.

"I am tough and strong - and that's what people want to see. They want to see someone who understands and cares, but they also want to see someone who will stand up for them. That's an area I could portray much more than I have."

When he's asked what differentiates Labour from National, he answers promptly and opts to focus on economic policy rather than social. He sets out Labour's new mantra of the two big parties taking the nation in different directions.

National's is the wrong direction, obviously - "basically hands off and very market driven". Labour, he suggests, will offer "a more intelligent, interventionist Government".

"That doesn't mean big Government. In many ways it's the opposite, but it does mean a more engaged government."

The first part of that sentence is a sign of his pragmatism, a tacit nod that maybe there was some justification for National's cuts to the public service.

There is a longer pause when he is asked what differentiates Labour from the Greens - a possible coalition partner, but one which happily poaches Labour's votes.

Shearer can not be too blunt about it, in the interests of future coalitions, but he isolates contrasting stands on mining and quantitative easing.

There is a very long pause indeed when Shearer is asked what differentiates him from John Key.

In many ways the two are comparable - at ease in their skin, comfortable in positions of leadership, trying to make a virtue out of appearing "ordinary" and politically pragmatic.

Shearer is more like Key than he is like Clark. He finally answers, saying he has respect for Key as "a communicator" but does not know where Key wants to take the country.

He does know where he wants to take the country himself and will share that with the rest of us this weekend.

When the Prime Minister's description of him as being "nice" is raised, he lifts his eyebrows and leans forward. "Don't underestimate me."

It is a warning to those seeking to destabilise him as much as a parting shot to the interviewer.

SHEARER'S TOP TEAM (Ranked out of ten):

- NZ Herald

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