Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: David - here's 15 tips for your make-or-break speech

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David Shearer. Photo / Kellie Blizard
David Shearer. Photo / Kellie Blizard

Let's not get carried away. It would take weapons-grade alchemy to get the detractors cheering. But, all the same, Sunday afternoon presents the best, and possibly last, centre-stage opportunity for David Shearer to show He Is Up To It.

While the Labour leader would have preferred a different flavour of buildup - I've counted more than 50 pieces this week on whether He Is Up To It, including those from the bloggers he assures us he doesn't read - it means at least that he will have everyone's attention, in the hall and beyond, when he steps up to speak at the end of the party conference.

Shearer has spent most of his first year in earnest I'm-listening mode, which seems chiefly to have left him looking befuddled. Unsolicited advice may be the last thing he now seeks. So here goes: 15 top tips for the big speech. Imagine them read in the style of John Key on Letterman, if that helps.

1. Do a vocal warm-up.

Seriously. The words are meant to trip off, not up on, your tongue. "She sells sea shells on the seashore."

2. Tackle criticism head-on.

Acknowledge you're still rough around the edges, have more to learn. You've been listening to the words of supporters and cynics alike, and will continue to listen. But you are unshakable in your determination to return Labour to government in 2014.

3. Laugh it into the ether.

Belt out a couple of gags to diffuse the tension. Perhaps a grateful salute to those who have stuck by you through a sometimes bumpy first year. Your loyal friends in caucus. The wider party. The rightwing blogs. And, if you're feeling brave, invoke your favourite Shearer epithet, which came from a volunteer working the phones during your 2009 Mt Albert byelection campaign. He said you were "like Mother Teresa crossed with Indiana Jones". The volunteer? Your good friend David Cunliffe.

4. No more Mr Nice Guy.

Or not for a moment, at least. Anyone who doesn't want to join you in returning Labour to government in 2014 needs to get out of the way. Fire in your eyes. Whatever it takes. Lighter fluid. Anything.

5. 2014.

Say "2014" a lot.

6. Do history.

Some of your flock harbour reasonable reservations about the redness of your blood: "National-lite" and all that. Summon up some good Savage lines. Some Kirk. Revisit the Labour opening broadcast from the election campaign last year. It's far the best recent, popular effort to reconcile Labour's history with its modern expression. Take notes.

7. Do core principles.

Fairness and equality, you've always said, are your guiding principles. Don't be afraid to shout it: remember it was John Key who said all New Zealanders have a "socialist streak". Talk housing. And education. Education is too important to become a sandpit for extremists and chumps. Fire. Eyes.

8. Do vision.

You needn't pull any policy handbrake turns to get noticed. Instead, show us the new deal, the road map, whatever.

9. Use only words that you know and believe

If you say "transformative" it needs to be delivered with vigour, not as if you're ordering dinner at the drive-through.

10. Don't mention the PM

Especially, don't take the piss. Like some political incarnation of the Incredible Hulk, every mockery just makes him stronger. Leave that to the bloggers you don't read.

11. Talk about Gaza

The latest eruption of violence has put Israel-Palestine back in headlines. Your years running the UN office in Jerusalem make you uniquely qualified among NZ politicians - among New Zealanders, even - to speak on this subject.

12. Talk about NZ's place in the world

Could we do more to play honest broker in the Middle East? Talk about the character of our peacekeepers, about our reputation, about where and how we should be engaging in the world.

13. Leave the guitar at home.

14. Find a new gear.

Do you really want to be doing this? Do you have the mental and visceral steel? My guess is you're as unsure as anyone. But on Sunday you're going to have to persuade yourself you do, and see what happens. Because the sorry truth is you sometime look as discombobulated as the Kevin Kline simpleton who has to pretend to be the president in that 90s film Dave. And, frankly, it's going to have to be a lot - a lot - more like Indiana Jones.

15. Enjoy.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire is also a columnist for APN's Listener magazine.

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