Matt McCarten on politics
Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Centrist Shearer a let-down for lefties? No way

John Key and David Shearer. File photo / NZ Herald
John Key and David Shearer. File photo / NZ Herald

A lot of my mates on the left of the political spectrum were perturbed by Labour leader David Shearer's speech this week. The Herald's John Armstrong wrote that Shearer and the Prime Minister had the same vision - they merely disagreed on how to get there.

But isn't every politician's vision on the campaign stump the same? Fairness, equal opportunity, high wages, full employment, an export-led economy, a quality health system, the finest education in the world and apple pie for all?

The truth is that our two main parties long ago gave up pretending they had different routes to get there. The economic model they both follow is free-market, neo-liberal dogma. That means selling as many of our public assets and contracting out as many of our public services to corporations that can be gobbled up by them without indigestion.

As well as that, they then cut corporate and personal income taxes for top earners.

When these politicians are being truthful, they concede the results mean that power and money is transferred to those at the top of the heap. To placate the poor, they say the wealthy will use their new riches to invest in jobs and other worthy initiatives. Instead, we see how some of the rich will build $40 million, grandiose mansions for themselves, despite questions over how they got their money - at least in one case around Paratai Drive. We could build 80 homes for New Zealanders and create more jobs for the same price. Any fool can see that we are tens of thousands of houses short as rents are now more than most New Zealanders actually earn. It shows the market doesn't work.

Former Labour Cabinet minister John Tamihere was correct when he said the obvious solution was that the state had to get involved to provide the capital, train a construction workforce and, if necessary, subsidise the thousands of families who need a roof over their heads.

Disappointingly, both speeches by Key and Shearer this week cheerfully stuck with the current failed non-interventionist model. My Labour mates who didn't support Shearer in their leadership ballot last year now feel justified.

But they miss the point. I believed Shearer had a better chance of becoming Prime Minister in the next election than any of his colleagues on offer. Under MMP, it's not the biggest party that wins, it's the leader of the main party who can form a majority coalition.

If Shearer went further to the left, he wouldn't grow the coalition but merely succeed in taking votes off his potential allies - the Greens, Mana and NZ First. He'd lose the next election.

That's why I can see why he believes he has to move to the centre. This opens up space on his left for those three parties to increase their support, promoting more progressive policies than his party does. These parties are already on the left of Labour, on economics anyway, and the Greens and Mana are also on social policy.

After the next election, if these three support parties expand their numbers, they can make legitimate demands that any Labour-led government would have to adopt. It's called having your cake and eating it, too.

The positioning that has prompted Labour's apparent tack to the right may seem too clever by half. So you need to consider it alongside the individual actions of our leaders. The Auckland port dispute, for example, is a polarising matter. Therefore watching the conduct of the leaders of our possible next government provides an insight to their future behaviour.

The Greens and Mana's Hone Harawira predictably gave staunch support to the workers. Happily, Winston Peters sided with them, too. And although Shearer is cautious, he decided last Saturday to march and speak in support of the workers. Neither Phil Goff nor Helen Clark would have risked that.

The conduct of the leaders of the four opposition parties last weekend gives me confidence that despite the hopeful right-wing twitters, Shearer won't sell his supporters out. It's a shame we didn't know that about another Labour candidate before we elected him Mayor.

- Herald on Sunday

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