As the Labour Party heads into its annual conference this weekend, it has some big questions to ponder. But first it has to ask itself how long it can afford to persist with David Shearer as leader.

Some people grow into the role of party leader; others seem somehow diminished by it.

Phil Goff was an effective senior minister in the Clark Government - hard-working, smart, respected. But he was never entirely believable as Labour leader. He over-thought it, tried too hard, and seemed to lose sight of himself.

Freed from needing to be liked by everyone, he has since regained his mana.


Bill English was something of a wunderkind before he was thrust too soon into National's hot seat. His apprenticeship was short and brutal. Don Brash, who ousted him, earned respect as the brainy, gentlemanly, former Reserve Bank Governor before his tenure as National's leader. By the end of it, he was widely denigrated as racially divisive and out of touch.

And now there's David Shearer.

Shearer seems a decent man. Unwilling to engage in the unwholesome side of politics, he projected himself as the anti-politician politician - reasonable, pleasant, honourable. His made-for-television back story (brave, selfless aid worker saving the world's starving millions) looked like the perfect foil to John Key's.

But it's a punishing gig being Opposition leader, and Shearer is, sadly, out of his depth.

A year after taking over as leader, he's missing some essentials: experience, sound political instincts, the ability to persuade and inspire. Even more basic than having the gift of the gab is the critical ability to clearly articulate his party's thinking.

On that count, Shearer has been wholly unconvincing - seeming at times not only to lack a real understanding of the issues, but, more worryingly, the conviction of his words.

As political scientist Dr Raymond Miller observed after watching Shearer on TVNZ's Q+A in September: "I honestly felt that here is a person who has not been able to clear his head and think through the issues that are very important to his party. He seems to me like a very reluctant leader, and he's trying to explain himself, but without the passion or the clarity that you need as a leader, particularly a leader of the Opposition."

That Labour hasn't landed any telling blows on the Government after months of scandal and blunders might be blamed on an underperforming, disunited front bench, but this, too, is on Shearer's shoulders. The ability to knit together a cohesive team, to get the best out of people, is part of his job description.


It may be that Shearer will quell the growing disenchantment with a standout performance this weekend. But I doubt it. He is not the leader Labour needs right now.

This isn't just about a few dud performances on TV, and the kind of political misjudgments that have let the Government off the hook (the alleged GCSB tape of the PM that Shearer wasn't able to produce, for example).

Key is right that Green Party leader Russel Norman leaves Shearer for dead. Labour needs a leader who understands what's happened to this country over the past three decades.

Ideas matter. In 1984, when the fourth Labour Government became free market disciples, we embarked down a path that's had a profound effect on our thinking, our values, our institutions.

We took to neoliberalism with a fervour bordering on the religious - deregulating, privatising and union-busting with a speed and intensity unmatched in the rest of the world. The market was our god and it was merciless.

The effects of that experiment are still being felt.

The impotent, demoralised mines inspectorate that failed to protect Pike River miners, the leaky buildings that will cost us billions - both are consequences of deregulation fever.

What Labour started in 1984, National continued in the 1990s. There was little to contest the prevailing winner-takes-all orthodoxy.

That thinking still prevails. Despite the lessons of the global financial crisis, despite the growing concerns around income inequality, despite the realisation that we need to rethink the economic beliefs of the past 30 years, the Government is intent on winding back the welfare state, on shrinking public services, on selling off publicly owned assets, on letting the market take its course.

It continues to blame beneficiaries for being out of work, and to punish their children, even as it invokes global economic conditions for unemployment, now at a 13-year high.

Record numbers of people are leaving for Australia. Many are paid an insufficient wage to support their families so that we have to top up their wages through Working for Families, and supplement their rent.

Child poverty and inequality are shamefully high.

There are big questions being asked of us. We need new thinking and new models - and they won't come from the defenders of the current orthodoxy.