Key still popular and there is not much any Labour leader can do about it.

Labour Party leader David Shearer is now assured of maximum public attention when he addresses the party's annual conference on Sunday. A chorus of calls for his replacement this week have ensured his first conference as leader will be his last unless he can produce a truly inspiring performance. Unfortunately, he is not that sort of leader. Not many are.

If John Key's leadership of the National Party had ever depended on a rousing speech he would not be where he is today. He, like Helen Clark, Jim Bolger, David Lange and many earlier prime ministers, succeeded because he led an opposition at a time when a government was on the wane.

Those calling time on Mr Shearer blame him for the fact that the present Government is clearly not on the wane. It has endured a difficult year. There has been the Dotcom saga, the setbacks over partial asset sales and the pokie deal, privacy breaches, the resignation of two ministers, not to mention the Prime Minister's "brain fades" and occasional careless remarks. Yet National still polls at around 47 per cent, a dozen points ahead of Labour, and Mr Key seems as popular as ever.

Mr Shearer's critics cannot understand this. They know there are only two explanations: either the Government is genuinely popular and they are out of touch with the country's mood, or the mood has changed and Labour's leader is failing to capitalise on it. Naturally they prefer the latter view but they are wrong.


The day will come when the country tires of the present Government but despite everything that has gone awry this year, polls consistently suggest that day is not here yet. Mr Key still has the confidence of the country and there is not much any Labour leader can do about it.

It is rare that an opposition leader can turn the public against a government in its first or second term. Sir Keith Holyoake in 1960 and Sir Robert Muldoon in 1975 defeated first term Labour governments but no Labour leader since 1957 has stopped a National government winning three elections. Norman Kirk and Helen Clark each took over the leadership at the same stage as Mr Shearer - early in the second term of a National government. Each lost the next election and survived.

Mr Shearer's critics say he is not a Kirk or a Clark but they forget that most people did not find those leaders very impressive until they won when the country wanted a change. They survived to win because their caucus knew they had qualities that that the public would eventually admire. Could that be true of Mr Shearer?

If he is dumped by an impatient opposition he will be in the company of Sir John Marshall, Sir Wallace Rowling, Jim McLay, Mike Moore, Bill English and Phil Goff. Three of them were previously prime minister, all had Cabinet experience. Mr Shearer is the least experienced leader of a major party in living memory.

Even Don Brash, who led National at the 2005 election, had been close to governments for a long time before he entered Parliament. Mr Shearer won the Mt Albert byelection in 2009 and was barely heard in public before he was encouraged to stand for the leadership vacated by Mr Goff a year ago.

He was thrust into the limelight too quickly and he still sounds diffident. But his judgment on policy so far has been good. He appears to be a moderate, responsible decision-maker and a personality the country would like when Labour's time comes. That cannot be said for some of his possible replacements. All he may need is time.