David Shearer is a loss to our politics. One of those rare parliamentarians held in high regard on both sides of the House, the Government has readily enlisted his knowledge and experience of the United Nations in the campaign to win a seat on the Security Council and other international projects. He was almost certain to be foreign minister in the next Labour Government whenever that might be. He must have made his decision to leave Parliament for a UN post long before John Key caught almost everyone by surprise on Monday.

Suddenly, the odds on the next election have narrowed and Shearer may be wishing he was staying, but probably not. He has had a good taste of political life in the seven years since he won the Mt Albert seat vacated by Helen Clark. He was elected Labour's leader just two years later, the last to be chosen by the party's MPs alone. His quiet manner and diffident mode of speaking was blamed for Labour's continued poor polling, though it has to said it was polling better under him than it has under his successors so far.

Shearer was replaced before he had the chance to lead the party into an election and the public never had a chance to give its verdict on him. He might have done better than the experts expected. But politics is a fickle business and he will be committed to returning to UN peacekeeping work, the role in which the Herald made him its New Zealander of the Year in 1992. Now he is about to head its mission to South Sudan, assuming the Security Council confirms the appointment made by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully calls it a "huge deal", "a big feather in his cap". South Sudan he calls, "the toughest peacekeeping assignment on the planet". That sort of public recognition from a political opponent seems to occur only in foreign affairs, more is the pity.

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Shearer's departure will force another byelection in a safe Labour seat, which hardly seems worth the trouble and expense when a general election is due later in the year. Under MMP, electorate MPs could easily be replaced by somebody from their party's list for the remainder of a term. Labour leader Andrew Little suggested yesterday a byelection could be avoided by an early general election that could be justified by the Prime Minister's resignation.

Certainly there is a case for one. National is in power largely on the strength of Key's popular appeal and personal qualities. The character of governments is nearly always set by their leader and whoever is elected by the National caucus on Monday will put a new stamp on the party. Arguably, the public should be given an early opportunity to say whether National remains its preferred government.

But equally it may be argued the public needs time to assess the new leader in command, and the state of the party under his leadership, before it is asked to vote. For that reason, no opposition party changes its leader just before an election is due and no governing party should be obliged to call an election as soon. A byelection in Mt Albert cannot be avoided but its departing MP will be well remembered.