Fran O'Sullivan: Shearer had to go - it was when, not if

Outgoing Labour leader badly needed a dose of political realism

David Cunliffe is the leader Labour will choose if it wants to win next year's election. Photo / APN
David Cunliffe is the leader Labour will choose if it wants to win next year's election. Photo / APN

When the Wellington cocktail party set starts chattering openly about Labour's leadership, using slogans about how a "fish stinks from its head", it is obvious something is up.

So it was on Wednesday night as even the MPs at Wellington public relations and lobbying firm SenateSJH's annual bash talked freely about who was likely to replace David Shearer.

The symbolism was obvious.

Shearer's "dead fish" stunt - where he waved a couple of dead snapper in Parliament to make a point about Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy's botched attempt to lower the snapper catch limit - had backfired.

In reality, the only dead fish was Labour - a leading Opposition party still floundering in the polls and led by a politician who this week again proved he lacked the leadership skills to capitalise on opposition to the Government Communications Security Bureau legislation.

First, because he simply wasn't up to open duelling with Prime Minister John Key and second (and more important), because his heart wasn't really in it and he knew in his bones that Labour should have forged an accommodation with Key to change the bill, not simply sniped from the sidelines.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Shearer is a man of the world. He has operated in international troublespots. He knows about terrorism. It should be no surprise that he seriously entertained cutting a support deal with Key on the legislation. That is what a responsible political leader should seek to do.

But he did not put realism first.

Long-serving Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark had done just that with the National Opposition when the initial legislation was enacted. Like Key, Clark was privy to the nation's secrets. In an interview with the Nelson Mail this week, Clark said she had been both GCSB and Security Intelligence Service minister, and had also sat alongside National PM Jenny Shipley when the SIS legislation was reviewed.

"A lot of the things that I suggested got picked up. Traditionally there has been a lot of co-operation between the Government and the main Opposition - but it requires both to walk some steps."

The Nelson Mail reported Clark said that from her experience as a minister, she could say "without equivocation" that the people in both agencies were very loyal and professional public servants.

"Secondly, we need them, because the world is not an innocent and happy place."

Third, when it was decided that the law needed to be changed, "I think things always go better if there's an ability to have an open dialogue across the parties".

Unfortunately, today's Labour Party is so hooked into opposition for opposition's sake that it would rather end up publicly shackled to the personage and rhetoric of the dubious Kim Dotcom and tugged every which way by the Green Party than take the hard steps to position itself as the real leader of the opposition parties and forge a compromise with the Government when needed.

By Wednesday evening, speculation on Shearer's longevity as Labour's leader was down to a matter of when he would go, not if.

Among the Labour MPs at the gathering were Shane Jones, who yesterday said he would not make a tilt for the leadership, Lianne Dalziel (who is destined to be the next Mayor of Christchurch), David Clark and Damien O'Connor, along with a smattering of MPs from other parties and Cabinet ministers who had come down for a quick drink before heading back to Parliament for the resumption of the debate on the GCSB legislation.

It wasn't a surprise when Shearer announced his resignation at 1.30pm the next day.

Labour had already sent its persuaders in for a private meeting with Shearer. Colleagues were prepared for a vote of no confidence if he did not take the hint.

Now it is down to Grant Robertson and David Cunliffe to duel for Labour's crown.

Grant Robertson's jovial nature disguises his inner stealth but he has had only a short career outside politics. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Grant Robertson's jovial nature disguises his inner stealth but he has had only a short career outside politics. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour president Moira Coatsworth has said the party wants a full contest for the leadership rather than a caucus-approved deal for the leader and deputy's positions. The party membership will have 40 per cent of the votes, the same as the caucus, with the unions having the remaining 20 per cent.

Election Rules posted on the Labour Party's website yesterday rule out block voting by either the caucus or affiliated unions.

As to the two contestants, both are experienced politicians.

Robertson's jovial nature disguises an element of inner stealth. But he has had only a very short career outside of politics.

Cunliffe is an experienced Cabinet minister and has the skills to front John Key.

If Labour want to win, they will vote him in.

Fran O'Sullivan: An earlier version of this column misinterpreted comments by CTU president Helen Kelly as indicating unions would block-vote their 20 per cent for one candidate only." The error is regretted.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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