David Shearer is walking a fine line in his first few months as leader of the Labour Party. He has made it clear that he will not hurry things as he charts the party's new direction. But there is pressure on him to stamp his mark whenever the Government announces fresh policies.

His predecessor, Phil Goff, sought to do this through knee-jerk responses, too many of which were ill-conceived. Mr Shearer has given the impression that he will adopt a more considered approach. Unfortunately, his first major policy release does little to confirm that notion.

Mr Shearer has put his name to a member's bill that he contends will restrict the way ministers approve Overseas Investment Office decisions. Clearly, his aim is to make a meaningful strike while that subject is in people's minds and the fate of the Crafar farms remains unclear. But he has not succeeded as much as could and should have been the case.

First, there has been the embarrassment associated with the bill's removal of safeguards for flora and fauna. If this was unintentional, it was also inept. Mr Shearer also chose a somewhat inappropriate vehicle for his initiative, as member's bills are customarily the work of backbench MPs.


Such bills' chances of being drawn by ballot are so slender there is very little chance of this one making a practical impact.

But perhaps worst of all, the bill would fall hopelessly flat if it were ever to see the light of parliamentary debate.

It would compel governments to throw out any foreign bid to buy farms unless the offer would result in more jobs and more exports than any New Zealand bid could. As a result, most applications from foreigners to buy sensitive land would be turned down.

The problem is that this is essentially the situation now, following Justice Forrie Miller's ruling on the sale of the Crafar farms to Shanghai Pengxin, which established a test for the economic benefits to New Zealand of foreign investments in farms.

This may not bother Mr Shearer all that much. Enhancing his profile was probably the main aim of the exercise. Nor may the bill's inadequacies worry Labour supporters. It must gall and alarm them to see Greens co-leader Russel Norman and others, rather than their leader, commenting frequently on Government policies on the TV news.

This reinforces the fact that the Greens' strong election showing and Mr Norman's wide policy purview, allied to Labour's dismal performance, mean they are viewed as a valid opposition voice.

Mr Shearer's interjection on foreign investment may have briefly addressed that. But the fact that this was primarily a stunt short on substance and long on politicking did nothing to advance his appeal as a leader untarnished by a long apprenticeship in Parliament. That should be a concern because he has made much of the promise of a fresh approach.

The Crafar farms muddle presented an opportunity. There is a need to find a way through the mess that has been created by constant tinkering with the regulations governing foreign investment. Mr Shearer's member's bill is not it. This misstep means an even more critical eye will be turned to what is being billed as his first major policy speech tomorrow.


In this Mr Shearer will discuss where he plans to take the Labour Party. He must make a sizeable impact, not least in suggesting that the party has learned the lessons of its humiliating election defeat and is more in touch with the sentiment of much of the electorate.

He must also confirm that substantial change is in the air, and that Labour's new leader is capable of making better and more considered choices.