Brian Edwards Media

On David Shearer And Wisdom Before And After The Event


Yesterday Chris Trotter’s Bowalley Road blog, headed The Unfortunate Experiment, came to the conclusion that David Shearer had to go as leader of the Labour Party. Trotter’s caption, beneath a photograph of Shearer, read: David Shearer is an immensely likeable bloke, and his work at the UN was truly inspirational, but he ain’t anybody’s kind of leader.

Trotter then advanced his reasons for believing that Shearer had to go. And I think those reasons are sound. Other bloggers from both Right and Left appear to agree.

But this is all just wisdom after the event. Shearer won the leadership of the Labour Party over David Cunliffe on December 13 last year. Six days earlier I had written a post on this site, titled Shearer or Cunliffe? Why I’ve changed my mind.  

If you revisit that post you’ll find that it’s remarkably similar in content to Chris Trotter’s blog, dated 27 April 2012, four-and-a-half  months after Shearer assumed the leadership? And it’s precisely what other bloggers are also now saying?

And yes, I’m blowing my own trumpet. And I’m entitled. Wisdom before the event is a helluva lot more impressive and useful than wisdom after the event.

This morning my co-commentator on The Nation and fellow media trainer Bill Ralston joked about Shearer, ‘He should have had some media training.’ But it was a joke. Media training would have made not an iota of difference to Shearer’s fortunes. He would have proved untrainable.

That sounds harsh, but it is not intended to be. Shearer is simply miscast as the leader of a political party in opposition. To change his image, he would have to change his personality and that, in human terms, could only be a change for the worse. Shearer is genetically challenged as a Leader of the Opposition. The killer instinct and the showbiz gene are both missing. He can be reasonable but he can’t project.

Media training is a waste of time for such politicians. Worse, it’s transparent, an ineffective cover-up job that listeners and viewers can recognise and see through. And that is damaging.

Bill Rowling, whom I mentioned in the earlier blog, was a strong personality who looked weak on television. Attempts to make him more forceful made him look like a weak man trying to appear forceful.

A similar fate was met by the rather wooden Geoffrey Palmer, who was Prime Minister for a year and who, I’m told, received media advice from some Australian gurus in the art. The advice was apparently to be physically more animated and smile more. The effect, however, was to make him look remarkably like the American Eagle on The Muppets.

Media trainers need first and foremost to be skilled diagnosticians. A wrong  diagnosis, followed by inappropriate treatment can be fatal to the patient’s prospects of survival. Sometimes, as in the case of David Shearer, it is kindest to admit that there is no cure and wish them a happy life – perhaps doing something else.

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  1. you can’t teach charisma or personality..and you can’t instil killer instinct!
    your comment from above , says it all,Brian:

    Shearer is simply miscast as the leader of a political party in opposition. To change his image, he would have to change his personality and that, in human terms, could only be a change for the worse. Shearer is genetically challenged as a Leader of the Opposition. The killer instinct and the showbiz gene are both missing. He can be reasonable but he can’t project”

    Time to cut loose the attack dog, Cunliffe..!

  2. Wisdom before the event is a helluva lot more impressive and useful than wisdom after the event.

    At least some who had similar concerns have since had the wisdom to hold their peace, hoping things might turn for the better. And still they might.

    The issues with Shearer have much to do with the ‘management’ of perception, and his advisory team have had a fair bit to do with that. Of course media types are only too happy to recycle what their ‘sources’ tell them, the more influential or pedigreed those sources the better.

    So, Brian, how exactly is your reposting helping to redress the balance for those New Zealanders whose well-being will depend upon the renaissance of the left?

    BE: Your point seems to be that we should all have kept our counsel, said nothing and hoped for the best. Not a particularly effective political strategy I would have thought. You are, however, probably right in suggesting that Shearer has received either bad or confusingly conflicting advice. But I doubt that the damage done by his having taken that advice can now be undone.

    As it happens I feel really sorry for Shearer. He was promoted too soon by a caucus that put its personal animosities before the best interests of the party. Petty mindedness is at the root of its current dilemma.

  3. Cunliffe would have failed too. The big problem labour have is the iron grip Clark had over the party and their total inability to jettison the Clark loyalists. Their list is appalling and Shearer is the best of a lot of dross.
    Where is Labours Russel Norman or any number of the Greens new intake who are actually taking it to the government. Labour has become a plaything of Helen Kelly after it has become emancipated after Helen Clark’s reign.

  4. I too forecast problems following the open meeting in Taranaki Street, where it was apparent that Cinliffe clearly outperformed DS.

    That the party went ahead with the choice suggests that either a) there was a clear team strategy in place to complement deficiencies, or b) DS was being pushed forward to duel ineffectively, take a fall and open the future to a redemptive Fortinbras.

    From what has happened, it is clear that a) was never on the cards. This leaves b).

    Is Robertson the man to appear at the end of the Final Act and sweep the field? Absolutely not in my view. His position in Wellington Central is held at the whim of National who could easily dislodge him with a high profile candidate. And he above all, has been responsible for the failures of recent campaigns. Your comments about his merits also seem ill-founded. His ‘Back Story’ is essentially a blank page.

    Ultimately, the only way back is through Cunliffe, who at least had the guts to put himself forward in an honest manner.

  5. I totally agree with you now as I did then. I’ve been harbouring the wistful hope that someone would be able to help him clarify his ambitions for New Zealand and then train him to express them meaningfully.
    Cunliffe can be impetuous but remember the man who said Labour would buy back the assets? That clear sense of policy, principle and direction seems to be utterly lacking in David Shearer. Ironically, the man so brave in a war zone is so timid in politics. Perhaps it’s not ironic: they are too different realms of being and the skills don’t cross over.

  6. David Shearer’s impending political destruction can be placed squarely on those in Labour’s caucus who voted for him as leader. The guy was NEVER leadership material notwithstanding he was still a parliamentary greenhorn. And unlike his political opposite who rose to the top of the National Party in double-quick time, John Key came from the bear pit of international high finance where profit is king and he knew how to deal to with those who worked under him.

    Shearer came from the opposite end of the spectrum; a bloated and ineffective organisation known for achieving precious little and spending a lot to achieve it. He comes across as a lonely lost sheep looking for Little Bo Beep, wandering aimlessly about trying to find her. And now he has stumbled on to the entrance of the abattoir.

  7. Changing leader right now might do more harm than good. It would give an impression of uncertainty and panic. This is going to be a difficult year for National whoever Labour has as leader. Labour will lose credibility with more infighting at this stage. Keep the powder dry and replace Shearer twelve months out from the next election.

  8. I too thought Cunliffe would be the better choice but, unlike everybody else it seems, now support Shearer. I think he has had too much bad advice about not declaring any policies that could upset the centre-right and as a result the left have found him uninspiring. I began liking him after I saw him on the POAL march. He was open, chatted to all sorts of people and gave a good speech. A wharfie told me he had appeared at the picket much more often than was reported and was at the pub with them the night before. This is something disarming about him that is appealing and I think he needs more time to let that come across in the media. Remember Helen had appalling poll results when she took on the leadership. I was going to suggest you offered him your services but clearly that isn’t going to happen.

    BE: “Remember Helen had appalling poll results when she took on the leadership. I was going to suggest you offered him your services but clearly that isn’t going to happen.” Well, I could of course be wrong about Shearer’s ‘untrainability’. It may interest you to know that when Helen first sought my advice, in June 1996, I told her that I thought she was ‘unfixable’. She was than on 3% as Preferred Prime Minister and Labour was on 14%. We were both persuaded by the then President of the Labour Party, my very close friend and Best Man at my wedding to Judy, to have one session together to see how it went. The rest, as they say, is history. By November she had a real shot at winning. Winston then took 6 weeks to decide who he’d go with and, abandoning his word, went with National. In retrospect that was probably the best luck Helen ever had.

    By the way, there’s a low angle shot of Shearer in today’s Sunday Star Times. He looks quite formidable.

  9. Shearer is a tragic case of a good man misemployed. He shouldn’t be in politics; he would be better elsewhere. Now his cv will spoiled by politics: a spiteful cockpit. He deserves better.

    BE: Agreed. But he may still surprise. You know what they say about a week in politics. John Banks does too.

  10. Does Labour have its own “hollow man” in Shearer?
    maybe, but who to replace him with?
    Grant Robertson – No, he will alienate the very people that Labour needs to be re-elected – the working Pacifica.
    David Cunliffe – No, he is a wide boy,a white shoe opprtunist.
    David Parker – Needs an electorate.
    Jacinda Ardern – Like Parker, the invisible woman needs an electorate.
    Where is Shane Jones when you need him?

  11. I’m in the camp that believes that Shearer is still timing his run. I agree that there have been a lot of things in the press in this election cycle that Shearer could have tacked his name on, in the name of better press coverage for himself as a leader, but I still feel there is ample time. I’ve also noted that Shearer that this speculation on his ability to lead seems to have spurred him into action.

    Labour has still got to win the hearts back of a lot of people in order to win the next election, and I wonder if that is what his strategy has been about, reconnecting with the electorate, to (finally) hear what they really want.

    Time will tell, but whilst on the Trumpet blowing parade I saw John Key as Brash’s replacement when Brash went down, and I saw Shearer as future leader of the Labour party when he took Mt Albert (he does have the shine/x factor, in my mind, just, as I speculate, he may be actually dealing with the ground troops first?)

  12. 12

    I’m no expert on either media presentation or Labour politics. However, I’m willing to expose my predictions prior to Shearer’s selection.

    First, I did not believe either Cunliffe or Palmer were electable and therefore Shearer was their best option. Second, I expected Shearer’s biggest problem would be Labour’s internal factions.

    Arguably, the other Davids would have been better opposition leaders and therefore at least interim choices. But who wants to be opposition for ever? Eventually you have to win an election.

    Ironically, Labour’s problem is that it has too many coalition partners. It is surrounded and swamped with “friendly” faces seducing Labour’s factional and despairing supporters.

    Interesting times.

  13. 13

    David (Runnacles)

    Interesting times ! No, sorry, too much pain for the poor. The intelligentsia work for the rich or themselves and the poor lack coherent leadership.

    Not surprised that Shearer has failed to connect. From the margins he is fundamentally gray despite various claims of green shoots. Labour’s disconnection, and that of nearly all the parties, seems to be along the Wet/Dry economic fault-line. The Wet talk is pervasive but unsatisfying to the proletariat.
    R. Norman has green shoots but wet roots, like the rest. The parliamentary game is no longer plausible from the margins.

  14. If Cunliffe becomes leader, he’ll have to weed out much [not all] of the ‘new breed’ mid-80s to today’s Labour ilk – including student politicians-turned politicians, ‘Third Way’ ideologues and those who allow TW/right wing ideology to drive their decisions – including the advisers they take on. They’ll have to review and weed out or reduce the roles of those [politically appointed and politicians] who are torn between market driven economics and socialistic [lite] social policy. That blend DOES NOT WORK. The rest of the civilised is moving away from the kind of economics and social policy of the last 30-40 years – so must NZ. Labour needs to get back in touch with [and take on] ordinary NZ people – middle-low income. I hope Cunliffe is serious – if he is, Labour may soar in support.

  15. Ho hum Brian. You just have to hear David Shearer speak in public to realize that he has an X factor. And all this Shearer criticism comes from the left wing of the Labour party. Funny that.

    Psychologically, you are just obeying your old friend Helen Clarke, who wanted David Cunliffe to take over.

    David Cunliffe, despite being a brainy guy, has ziltch charisma and if leader, would put John Key and the Nats back in power for a third term.

    Shearer needs to weld the party together though. Labour has to work out what it stands for, and come up with creditable policies over time.

    BE:Well, I haven’t heard David speak in public, so I’ll have to take your word for it. As for the rest of what you have to say, I’m not sure why you feel the need to ascribe such unworthy motives to people who’ve commented on David’s performance. In my own case, I’m a media trainer and commentator by profession and feel entitled and qualified to discuss how Shearer is coming across. To date it hasn’t been well. That’s relevant to his ability to get Labour across the line in 2014.

    As for “Psychologically, you are just obeying your old friend Helen Clarke…” get a life! And, despite her 27 years in Parliament, nine of them as Prime Minister, you seem to have missed the fact that her name is Helen Clark.