Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Far more to Shearer than media-pleasing glibness

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At times David Cunliffe comes across in the media as calculating. Photo / NZ Listener
At times David Cunliffe comes across in the media as calculating. Photo / NZ Listener

I don't think there's anyone in New Zealand who believes David Shearer has the speechifying eloquence of David Lange or the intimate television connection of Prime Minister John Key.

It's a sad commentary on modern politics that these two skills are the basic prerequisites of any successful political leader. We live in a media world where fakery, shallow quips and acting skills are expected of any aspirant to high office.

Shearer, a man with a serious job doing real work before becoming a politician, has been a bit slow to catch on.

His international experience negotiating with murdering sociopathic warlords or leading disparate groups to reach outcomes that saved lives are not the sort of skills that the chattering elements of our political classes respect.

His detractors leading up to this weekend's Labour Party conference seem to home in on his lack of ability to master sound bites and speaking without pauses.

For that crime, a vocal firing squad demands he be replaced by the earlier defeated nominee David Cunliffe.

I'd be more sympathetic if the tension was about policy differences. But it's not.

All the future leadership contenders are singing from the same policy hymn book. The criticism boils down to style and presentation. There's no doubt Cunliffe is a gifted performer. What is discomforting is his every nuance and action seems calculated.

With Shearer you can sense his real character. With Cunliffe, I can't escape the feeling that he has the same phoniness as the Republican US presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

You couldn't find a better example than Guyon Espiner's superb piece in the NZ Listener. Presumably, it was timed to remind the Labour Party faithful a few days before their conference that Cunliffe is still a viable alternative for those with buyers' remorse on Shearer.

The original Ponsonby cafe interview venue was changed because the subject didn't want his potential blue collar supporters to think he was some latte-sipping w***** swanning around Auckland's liberal ghetto. The fact he lives a stone's throw from Ponsonby Rd (miles away from his New Lynn electorate) reveals more.

Cunliffe's angst with his interviewer about where he should be photographed was plain narcissism. Not at the beach as he could be lampooned as if his career were drowning; not on a lawn or he could described as a snake in the grass.

A satire scriptwriter high on cocaine couldn't make this stuff up.

The point I'm making is that obsessing about managing superficiality in the media shouldn't be prioritised over character.

That said, Shearer's public presentation weakness is real. He hasn't understood the importance and urgency of overcoming this problem. After this week we can safely conclude he has got it now.

But let's be fair, this guy has been in the leadership for nine months. Everyone waxes over the formidable presence of Clark. Have they forgotten Clark's early years as party leader? Remember when she was 2 per cent in preferred leader stakes? It took years for her to get out of single figure poll support. She had to get a new hairstyle, a new voice and a new wardrobe and lead the party for six years before victory.

What you want from a leader is political success. For that you need only look at the recent polls. Under Shearer's leadership the gap between Labour and National has halved from 20 points to 10. In the past three polls Labour, the Greens and NZ First have together outpolled National and her allies. Shearer's personal ratings surpass anything Goff got or Clark reached in her early years.

Shearer's success is remarkable given he is up against our most popular prime minister in living memory. I would have thought a standing ovation was in order.

Provided Shearer takes some serious time out over the summer to work on his media and presentation skills, and assuming in the new year he shows courage by promoting talent over non-performers onto his front bench, his party will coast to victory at the next election. A bit of unity and patience wouldn't be a bad thing.

- Herald on Sunday

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