Claire Trevett 's Opinion

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

Claire Trevett: Shearer missing some big targets

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David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The rumblings over the Australian Labor Party leadership involving Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her predecessor Kevin Rudd bear little resemblance to the earnest affair in New Zealand last year.

Among the many differences is that neither Gillard nor Rudd have so far promised such tantalising things as tents.

The nation is still waiting to see the tent Labour leader David Shearer promised back in December as part of his pitch for the leadership in which he said "I want Labour to be a big tent".

It was enough of a promise to get him the leadership, and in February he continued with the theme when - perhaps with some envy - he revealed National already had its tent, describing John Key as "the pole that holds the rest of the National Party tent up". It is about the only theme he has expanded on so far.

Some have begun scratching their heads about Labour's new leader as the "few weeks" in which Shearer promised he would play show and tell stretches into almost two months.

Key is hog-tied by promises past, on matters ranging from the retirement age to the increasingly unedifying visit to Te Tii Marae for Waitangi. Shearer's apparent reluctance to similarly bind himself to anything has gone to extremes.

He will lay into what National is doing but will not say what Labour will do in the same situation. He was silent on the Ports of Auckland dispute. He criticised National for apparent reluctance to include a Treaty of Waitangi clause in its Mixed Ownership Model legislation, but would not say if he believed one should be included.

Instead, he said it was a hypothetical question because Labour did not believe the sales should be made at all. He criticised the approval of the sale of the Crafar farms to Shanghai Pengxin, but would not say if he believed the law should be changed. He spoke about Waitangi Day but demurred when he was asked if he would follow Key's lead by promising to return every year, saying he didn't even know if he would be back in 2013. In matters of the heart, there is something to be said for a man of mystery. But in politics?

His short tenure in politics means few have any idea of his political compass or even if he has one. People know he had an epiphany when watching starving children fight over mango skins he had thrown from the back of a truck in Sudan. What is not so clear is how exactly this translates to New Zealand.

Next week Labour will announce the first steps of the organisational review of the party. It will include outside consultants - among them Bryan Gould, a former British Labour MP. It has taken so long that Young Labour gave up waiting and launched its own submission process.

Next month Shearer will deliver keynote speeches - one aimed at sharing that political compass with the public and another giving the long-promised "broad brushstrokes" on policy direction. He is likely to signal where he will go on some existing Labour policies rather than set out new policies.

Those speeches had better be good.

For the beginning of the year should have been a veritable mardi gras for any Opposition leader, let alone a new one nestled into the honeymoon suite.

Every pinata had a treasure trove in it and was just begging to be hit with a big stick.

The reality of state asset sales began to sink in, there was the ongoing Crafar farms' foreign investment saga, the leaking of the teapot tapes and the Electoral Commission decision that Key's hour of chatting to the famous on Radio Live was an election programme. The flames of Key's political capital burning were fuelled variously by the bellows effect of Winston Peters and by the fanning of the wings of Key's own chickens coming home to roost.

It is astonishing then that Labour can see any kind of solace in the first few polls of the year, Roy Morgan and last week's 3 News Reid Research poll, which showed National's support has slipped only slightly and Shearer's debut as preferred PM only just nudged double digits. If anything, it was vindication for Phil Goff that it was not his leadership that doomed Labour.

The biggest shifts were among Labour's fellow Opposition parties - support increased for both the Greens and NZ First.

Shearer has been busy building relations with them. He had a dinner with Peters last week and Labour has given him some of its allocated parliamentary questions to Peters - the political equivalent of gifts of courting. And he publicly mended bridges with Mana leader Hone Harawira.

But Shearer needs to spend some time getting his own yurt in order before he goes looking for others to pitch their pup tents alongside.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

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

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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