They say Leader of the Opposition is the worst job in politics. It requires unceasing, carping criticism of everything the Government does and a relentlessly negative outlook on the country's condition and prospects under current policies. Somehow this hapless individual is supposed to be popular too.

David Shearer, elected leader of the Labour Party after the last election, has clearly decided this job description is not for him. Whatever he has been doing since his elevation he has not been out front on most of the issues that are making this a testing year for John Key's Government. There is a view that he is to blame for the fact these issues have not dented National's standing in two recent polls or lifted Labour's support. The concern seems to have permeated his own office with the resignation of his chief of staff, Stuart Nash.

If the departure of Mr Nash signals a change of style for Mr Shearer, it would be a mistake. Mr Shearer is clearly not a tub-thumping politician. He seems a normal, thoughtful, cautious and fair-minded citizen. The public has seen enough of him to come to that assessment. If he adopts a different manner now it will not ring true. People do not follow leaders who lack the confidence to be themselves.

The country is watching Mr Shearer with more interest than he may know. Still a relative newcomer to Parliament, he has been given leadership of a major party and plenty of time to prepare for its next period in power. He is in the position Helen Clark was in 1994 and, like her, his first task may be to see off a challenge to Labour from the left before it can set its sights on the Government.


The Green Party has been polling so well this year, though not as well as the Alliance in the mid-1990s, that it might take more of Labour's vote at the next election and even bid to supplant Labour as the larger party of the left. Labour survived just such a bid by the Alliance when Helen Clark offered it an olive branch at the 1996 election.

Mr Shearer is already on good terms with the Greens. He appears in public with its leaders and seems unconcerned by its polling at Labour's expense. Neither need he be concerned that leaders of the Greens and New Zealand First are more adept at attacking the Government in Parliament than he is. None of them have been able to hurt National and its leader in the polls either.

Mr Shearer can leave the muckraking in Parliament to the minor players and his deputy Grant Robertson while he concentrates on projects of more importance. He has a golden chance to get his best MPs working on far-sighted policies that the country is likely to need by the time Labour's turn comes around. One example of these is extended parental leave, the subject of a Labour member's bill that National has already said it will veto.

All modern countries are battling with the challenge of raising children well in an age when both parents have careers and double-income households have set the living standard. Paid parental leave is just one of the possible responses a party such as Labour might develop.

Its social policies will always be vulnerable to questions of cost, but under Mr Shearer it should be able to answer them if he keeps to his early fiscal resolve. He has all but disowned the irresponsible planks in Labour's platform, such as removing GST from fresh food, and endorsed its commitment to capital gains tax. The country can afford social advances if it closes avenues of tax avoidance.

This sort of policy development will not get Labour's leader on television but it would seep into public consciousness that he is getting himself and his party ready for office.

When the country decides the present Government has run its course, it would welcome a well-prepared successor. Mr Shearer should not panic.