At the unexpectedly shabby Team David Shearer headquarters in Mt Albert, with old battered couches out front and Labour red in the windows, the man himself gives a warm hello and a hell of a handshake.

It's not quite an ouch handshake but not far off. Shearer has been flexing his grip on the streets of Mt Albert for several weeks now.

The streets are where he prefers to run his campaign. He likes to meet the people, shake their hands and have a good chat about the issues.

Today, though, plans have changed. Instead of the initial walkabout on Dominion Rd, Shearer gets to perform in not one but two debates with the other main candidates.

The first is fairly low key in the warmth of a Pacific radio station and the other is in front of raucous students in the crowded quad at Auckland University.

He's happy to have me trail around with him and there are no cracks in his affability the whole day, though later he admits he likes performing in debates about as much as going to the dentist.

I've been intrigued to meet Shearer since Green Party co-leader Russel Norman described the man with the impressive CV, who has worked most of his adult life in the world's most troubled hotspots, as "the grey machine man".

There's a bit of a grey start to the CV - "My life motivation is the service of others" - but the guts are hardly grey: deputy head of the UN mission in Iraq and head of UNDP in Iraq, 2007-2009, humanitarian co-




ordinator, Lebanon, 2006, head of UN humanitarian office, Jerusalem, 2003.

Other jobs, too, in Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka.

He's seen horrible sights and dodged tricky and frightening situations. He's helped build schools and hospitals, reunited children with parents following Rwandan atrocities, provided starving Somali youngsters with food and got relief across the battle lines in Sri Lanka.

In 1993 this newspaper judged him, and his wife Anuschka, New Zealanders of the Year for their work in Somalia when they were with the charity Save the Children, well before local politics were on the horizon.

There have been other roles, too - adviser to Phil Goff when Goff was Minister of Foreign Affairs; research associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies in London; back in the 1980s when he helped prepare Tainui land claims and before that as a teacher.

Shearer has a story or three to tell and as the day goes by, I get the feeling that grey start to the CV, about his motivation being "the service of others" is simply the truth.

He appears to be a walking diplomat, though later in the week is accused of putting his foot in it on Triangle TV.

At Radio 531 PI in Ponsonby he's in the booth with the other candidates talking about the Waterview connection motorway and other issues.

Conor Roberts, Shearer's media liaison man and Labour Party activist, sits down for a chat and tells a story about when Labour MP David Cunliffe was telephone canvassing for Shearer.

Roberts was listening when the person on the phone must have asked Cunliffe what Shearer was like.

"And David [Cunliffe] said 'my sense is that he's kind of like Mother Teresa crossed with Indiana Jones' and I laughed. I thought it was fantastic because the guy's got an amazing background."

It's true, Roberts says, that Shearer has been out of the country for many years (though he has had a couple of cracks at getting into Parliament here before) but he's out morning and night campaigning and is totally committed to fighting for the people of Mt Albert.

Roberts recounts a story Shearer has told, about why he decided to get involved in world politics.

He was in Africa on his OE and was throwing the peel from a mango out of the car window when he realised kids were fighting each other on the road to pick the pieces up and eat them.

"So you get the sense when he gets to talk about those kinds of things, the depths of knowledge that he has. It's pretty special, we're lucky to have him."

When asked if Shearer is too nice, then, for the New Zealand world of politics, Roberts says you don't get to work in places such as Iraq, the most dangerous place in the world, and be a pushover. But he says Shearer always keeps his grace under fire.

Roberts volunteers that some people might think Shearer a bit cold or removed, but says he is neither of those.

"He bounds up to people and shakes hands and has a laugh."

The Labour campaigners have been a bit worried about Shearer being identified by his background abroad but have found people on the street don't mind. "What we actually found is that people like talking to him about that background and they see it as making him a credible candidate who can get things done."

He's not perfect either. "He was a bit shirty when I told him he had to be at the train station at 7.30 this morning."

The candidates come out of the studio for a break. They have all put in a solid performance.

Shearer repeats the question: "Am I too nice for politics? No, I don't think so.

"God, when I fight for something I bloody fight for it."

But he prefers not to fight dirty. He simply won't go down that path, he says. Which is why he thinks the harshest thing he's said about the other candidates, who have all taken swipes at him, was to call Melissa Lee's comment about South Auckland "silly."

The National Party candidate had suggested a motorway would divert criminals from South Auckland to Mt Albert.

What irked Shearer most about Lee's comment was the diversion of media interest away from the actual issues - of people losing their homes in Mt Roskill for a motorway and others having motorway traffic on their doorstep.

Asked where his motivation to serve others comes from, he says it has nothing to do with religion. He's seen too much horror to believe.

"I guess I broadly grew up in a Christian environment but after doing this I got a bit disillusioned with organised religion.

"I've seen organised religion justify horrors and that goes from Buddhist through to Christian to obviously the Muslim and Hindu and everything else."

His father was in the church, though, and a school principal and very community-minded, he says.

"It [service] is sort of in our DNA maybe, but I didn't ever think of it. It was only a few years ago that somebody said what do you stand for and I said 'service I guess'."

Shearer grew up in Papatoetoe, played rugby and cricket and went to Auckland University.

He and Anushcka, also a Kiwi, bought a house in Kingsland but have mostly lived abroad in conflict areas.

It's time to bring his kids home, he says later.

They're 10 and 12 and he wants them to grow up Kiwis too.

In the car on the way to the university for debate number two, Shearer admits he's not used to all this personal attention.

He is on a learning curve, he says.

Though he is used to being on the television, on CNN or the BBC, he has always been interviewed as an expert witness.

Now he is having to get used to judgments about him being made by political commentators who aren't on the ground but working off soundbites on the television which often cut out the context.

AT the university the atmosphere, like the music, is pumping. There's a hunger strike going on on behalf of Tamils in Sri Lanka and next door is a Safe table with an imitation sow crate and sad-looking fake pig inside. Students dressed as pigs are handing out leaflets.

In the debate proper, where the candidates are frequently drowned out by an airhorn when they go over their allotted time, Melissa Lee has been adjudged a racist and takes much of the heat.

Shearer says later that at least she fronted to this crowd. That took guts, he thinks.

Back at the campaign headquarters, where people have slumped gratefully in those couches after another busy day campaigning, Shearer admits he has no Plan B.

He quit his job to come home for politics. He has a sense of satisfaction at what he achieved abroad, but "at the end of the day I'm a New Zealander and I would like to come back and make a difference here, I sort of really do believe that."

Unlike some jobs, politics is a way to do that, he says.

He thinks his negotiation and diplomacy skills from working abroad will come in handy. In Iraq, he was responsible for several hundred staff and a $2 billion budget.

Certainly, the challenge is different but he likes a challenge and the past few weeks have been intensely full on, he says. He knows how the world works in Baghdad; he's still learning here. "Here, I'm outside my comfort zone, this is a new experience for me."

There's nothing like stepping over the edge, he says, then laughs that he just hopes he'll have a parachute.

But that parachute may have already proved a bit faulty.

On Thursday night he came under fire over an appearance on Triangle TV's Indian television programme, Roopa.

TV3 reported that Shearer had linked crime to the economy, the unemployed, migrant and Pacific communities, and then quoted his opponents condemning him as being anything from "a bit clumsy" (Russel Norman) to "patronising and arrogant" (Act's John Boscawen.)

Shearer, though, doesn't reckon the parachute has any holes and said yesterday that he stands by his words.

"I think if you look what I was saying I was really talking about unemployment and the really negative effects of unemployment on all communities - it wasn't just Pacific communities I was talking about - and it is about jobs and the health of families and everything else, it has a very corrosive effect.

"In fact if you look at it and put the story they ran [on Thursday] night in context I think it was all exactly what I feel. Unemployment has tremendously negative impacts on communities."

He refuses to return fire over the comments from his opponents.

"I started off this campaign saying I'm not going to comment on the other candidates and I'm going to try to stay focused on the issues.

"I really hope I can keep that going in politics itself; that we criticise a stance, that we criticise people on the basis of the issues and not on the basis of the person."

THE CANDIDATES

The June 13 Mt Albert by-election will be fought by 15 candidates. Twelve represent political parties and three are independents.

Advance voting for voters who will find it difficult to get to a polling place on election day starts next Wednesday.

"Unlike a general election, there will be no polling places open outside the Mt Albert electorate on election day," says Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden. "Therefore, Mt Albert voters who will be outside their electorate on election day should vote in advance."

There will be 28 polling booths in Mt Albert on election day, the same number as there were for last year's general election.

* Jim Bagnall, Independent.

* Ari Baker, Independent.

* John Boscawen, Act Party.

* Ben Boyce, The Bill and Ben Party.

* Simonne Dyer, Kiwi Party.

* Malcolm France, People Before Profit.

* Dakta Green, Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party.

* Rusty Kane, The People's Choice Party.

* Melissa Lee, National Party.

* Russel Norman, Green Party.

* Julian Pistorius, Libertarianz.

* David Shearer, Labour Party.

* Judy Turner, United Future Party.

* Anthony Van Den Heuvel, Human Rights Party.

* Jackson Wood, Independent.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BY-ELECTIONS

By-elections are infrequent contests in modern New Zealand politics. The Mt Albert battle is the eighth in the past 25 years. Since 1984, the country has been to the polls nine times.

It wasn't always the case. At least 20 by-elections were held during the term of the second New Zealand Parliament, from 1856-1860, partly because electoral boundaries were revised.

The last by-election, in July 2004, saw the re-election in Te Tai Hauauru of Tariana Turia after she quit Labour and joined the Maori Party. No major party entered the contest and the turnout was a paltry 32 per cent.

The two before that, however, were close-run things, reflecting perhaps what former Labour cabinet minister Dr Michael Bassett calls a tendency in by-elections for voters to "sound off" without changing the Government.

In May 1998 National's Shane Arden held off a vigorous challenge from Act's Owen Jennings in Taranaki-King Country after the long-serving MP - and former Prime Minister - Jim Bolger retired. Bolger had a majority in excess of 10,000. Arden got home with a margin of 998 votes.

Four years earlier, rural voters in Canterbury gave National's David Carter a fright in Ruth Richardson's Selwyn electorate. In the end, Carter got 428 votes more than Alliance candidate John Wright.

The last time a by-election was held in Auckland was in February 1992 when National's Clem Simich replaced Sir Robert Muldoon. Simich succeeded in the face of a lively Alliance campaign, partly on the strength of a backroom deal between Labour and National.

In New Zealand, 10 by-elections have sent future prime ministers to Parliament, among them Keith Holyoake, Bill Rowling, David Lange and Geoffrey Palmer. These singular contests create publicity which gets carried to wider audiences.

Bassett - a keen observer of Auckland politics - expects Mt Albert will stick with the party that has held the seat for 63 years. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark had a 10,351 majority in 2008. National's party vote in the seat was 35.7 per cent, which means Melissa Lee needs the likes of Russel Norman to draw votes off Labour.

"It's fundamentally a Labour seat," Bassett said. He suggested Simon Mitchell's emphatic community board win last month for the Labour-aligned City Vision was a straw in the wind. Mitchell, a lawyer, won a place on the Eden Albert board in a contest which covered a solid part of the Mt Albert electorate.

Bassett feels National may have over-hyped its expectations in the electorate.