The man elected leader of the Labour Party yesterday is quite possibly the least well known of anyone who has graduated to the leadership of one of New Zealand's main parties. David Shearer came into Parliament less than three years ago, in a byelection for Helen Clark's vacated seat, and made no strong impression on the public then or since. He was not a prominent Opposition spokesman during the previous term, and not an obvious contender for leadership before Phil Goff stood aside.
He owes his election perhaps to the fact that Mr Goff went voluntarily, rather than face an inevitable challenge. It remains to be seen whether this style of transition is in a party's best interest. Whatever may be said against the usual way that leaders are taken down by a determined challenger, it produces a hungry new leader with a big scalp already in the belt and an obligation to show the party that the pain and dissension of the coup will pay off in a stronger parliamentary performance.
Labour has not had that sort of leadership change since Helen Clark toppled Mike Moore 18 years ago. When her career had run its course, she took the unusual step of resigning from her party leadership immediately. No previous prime minister in living memory had done that. Jenny Shipley hung on after her defeat in 1999, as did Moore in 1990, Sir Robert Muldoon in 1984, Sir Wallace Rowling in 1975, Sir John Marshall in1972 ...
Mr Goff, who won the leadership too easily when Helen Clark went, has followed suit. No previous Opposition leader has so readily relinquished the leadership after a single election loss. Now Mr Goff has been succeeded by a man who probably would never have challenged a party leader, unlike the man who lost the caucus vote yesterday.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
David Cunliffe would certainly have challenged if Mr Goff had tried to hang on. Mr Cunliffe is hungry for the highest position and supremely confident. He has been the more assured performer on television, but not as popular as Mr Shearer in the caucus. Mr Cunliffe is the sort of politician a desperate party might turn to.
The election of Mr Shearer suggests that, despite a dismal election result, Labour is not desperate yet. It is a credible party of government and seems prepared to wait for the pendulum to return. But patience can mean a long spell in Opposition.
National was in this position when the Clark Government won a second term. Bill English had led the party to a heavy loss and the following year it replaced him with Don Brash.
Dr Brash was new to Parliament, hungry and determined. He gave the pendulum a push, lifting National to within one seat of victory at the next election. Can Mr Shearer do something similar? Or is he destined to disappoint, as Dr Brash eventually did, and give way to another new face before Labour can win again.
The election of a new party leader should carry some public excitement - a sense that the battle lines have been sharpened and the next prime minister might be in sight. But it was hard to find that sort of excitement yesterday. That might be less Mr Shearer's fault than that of the orderly succession the previous two leaders have arranged.
National, too, has a mild-mannered leader who had an orderly succession when his predecessor self-destructed. Mr Shearer, though, has a harder task than John Key faced when he took over his party. Labour is at a lower ebb. Mr Shearer needs to show the public the qualities that Labour MPs must see in him and prove he is not just a nice guy who might do the job until someone exciting is found.