Fran O'Sullivan: Ditch Shearer now? You must be joking

Labour leader's outsider status is a strength worth nurturing

Some say Shearer is set to be knifed by his deputy Grant Robertson. Photo / David White
Some say Shearer is set to be knifed by his deputy Grant Robertson. Photo / David White

It's fashionable for political pundits who put David Shearer on a pedestal just months back to now be placing a giant short under his future as Labour's leader.

Shearer is still finding his way after being offshore for most of his working life. He has a lot of catching up to do to match the institutional knowledge that talented colleagues like his deputy Grant Robertson and failed leadership contender David Cunliffe have acquired through their many years in Parliament.

But unlike Cunliffe and Robertson he is not hostage to Labour's past policy positions. He wasn't an active player in policy formation for the 2011 general election. This has proved to be a strength - not a weakness - as he quickly jettisoned one of Labour's more wacky election policies, wiping GST on fruit and vegetables. He followed through yesterday by abandoning another ill-considered Labour policy to support Government borrowing offshore to top up the Super Fund.

Shearer's moves display political courage. He is not afraid to upset grassroot Labour Party members. By adopting a classically rational approach he will increase Labour's appeal to centrist voters from across the voting spectrum.

In their guts New Zealanders know we face difficult inter-generational choices. We know in our bones that we will have to lift the age of entitlement for pensions above 65 years; we also know that the tax base must continue to be broadened and our love affair with property investment curtailed.

We are cautious and we are still in debt reduction mode after the excesses of the 2004-2008 period.

Shearer acknowledged this yesterday when he told how "Labour went into the election with a fiscal policy that would have seen us borrow more in the short term, return to surplus in the same year as National, then run larger surpluses and pay down debt more aggressively" ... But "New Zealanders told us they were uncomfortable about the rate of borrowing."

By stating that Labour has now decided that until the New Zealand Government is back in surplus "any new spending will have to be paid for out of existing budget provisions, new revenue, or by re-prioritising" he is sending a valuable signal.

Firstly, that a future Labour government will be prudent and that voters' expectations of big post-election windfalls are misplaced. Secondly, that offshore lenders should not be spooked if Labour returns to power under his leadership.

Shearer's admission that Labour has undersold its policy positions on raising the super age, and, introducing a broad capital tax are also welcome.

New Zealanders have made difficult choices in the past when they were in the national interest. But it takes time to come to terms with the short-term personal pain that must be endured from moving on these two particular very big policy fronts before the long-term gains kick in.

By signalling he is willing to initiate a cross-party discussion in these areas, Shearer is displaying true leadership.

The litany of reasons commentators believe Shearer is unlikely to last through to the next election in this role has filled plenty of news space in recent weeks.

Too boring, too inarticulate, no charisma, no killer instinct. Set to be knifed by his deputy Grant Robertson thus paving the way for the latter to potentially become New Zealand's first gay Prime Minister.

That is the prevailing view which comes through in the incessant media churn between commentators, shock jocks and bloggers.

But Labour would be making a big mistake if they prematurely move to dump Shearer.

Beyond Wellington's incestuous beltway he is making headway with New Zealanders as they increasing tune in to his open style and frank willingness to listen to their concerns.

The very fact that pundits have "gone dog" on Shearer within six months of his elevation says more about their judgment than the Labour MP's leadership attributes. After all, many conveniently parroted Shearer's well-spun backstory of how he "saved 50 million lives" during the time he delivered aid to international trouble spots for the United Nations. This heroic backstory, compared with John Key's own pre-politics career "making 50 million dollars" as a mercenary forex dealer, appealed to journalistic romantics.

But the neophyte politician was always going to need time to develop his political leadership style.

Compared to more linear or professional politicians, Shearer remains a strange beast. Chew the political fat with him over a beer and he comes across as open-minded but a bit of an intellectual magpie.

But as he develops his political record the romantic backstory will cease to matter.

- 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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