Brian Edwards Media

Shearer or Cunliffe? Why I haven’t changed my mind.

Fairfax NZ

On December 7 of last year, around the time the Labour Caucus was considering which of the two Davids, Shearer or Cunliffe, would make the best leader for the party, I wrote a post entitled ‘Shearer or Cunliffe? Why I’ve changed my mind.’ The post basically said that I’d initially thought Shearer was the man for the job, but I no longer thought so.

Well, that’s almost nine months ago, a reasonable gestation period one might have thought for the most diffident political butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis of anonymity. But it hasn’t happened. David Shearer has been branded ‘invisible’ by the commentators, while his opposite number, John Key, continues to bask in the warm sun of electoral approval.

I understand that the Labour Caucus is meeting today and that there may be mutterings about a recent speech in which Mr Shearer made an unfortunate reference to beneficiary ‘bludgers’ – not a term that normally sits comfortably on the lips of Labour leaders.

Meanwhile, Duncan Garner tells us that David Cunliffe is reviled by his caucus colleagues, who would not elect him leader if he were the last bee in the beehive. That, and convenient changes to the way the Labour Party can dump a non-performing leader,  would seem to ensure that Mr Shearer will lead his disciples into the next election.

So is it time for me to change my mind again? I don’t think so. You don’t change your mind when you’re sure you were right in the first place. And I’m pretty sure I was right in the first place. Have another read. See what you think. 

Shearer or Cunliffe? Why I’ve Changed My Mind 

 I like David Shearer. He’s nice. On the one or two occasions that I’ve met him, he’s struck me as unpretentious, warm, natural, sincere. These are the qualities that make him attractive as a future leader of the Labour Party. And, in the now popular terminology, borrowed from the world of soap operas, his ‘back-story’ suggests both organisational competence and idealism.

David Lange had some of these qualities. But like so many political shooting stars, he burnt out quickly.

Helen Clark lacked Shearer’s engaging warmth. But her long political apprenticeship and iron will rewarded her with three terms as Prime Minister.

You can see where I’m going. Praising Shearer’s freshness and dismissing his lack of experience in the bear pit of the Debating Chamber as irrelevant has almost become the norm in comparing him with Cunliffe. I was on that side of the argument myself when Shearer first threw his hat in the ring. But I’ve changed my mind.  

Shearer has had nearly three years to demonstrate his skill as a debater and about a fortnight to provide some evidence of competence in handling the media. He has done neither. His television appearances have bordered on the embarrassing. He lacks fluency and fails to project confidence or authority. Watching him makes you feel nervous and uncomfortable – a fatal flaw.

My problem is that I just can’t imagine him on his feet in the House footing it with the Prime Minister or any of his hugely experienced lieutenants. And a Leader of the Opposition must have a mastery not just of his own portfolios but of every portfolio. Clark had just such a mastery, but it was the product of 18 years experience in the Debating Chamber before she became Prime Minister.

Shearer’s background is certainly impressive. His supporters have taken to saying that Key went overseas and made 50 million dollars; Shearer went overseas and saved 50 million lives. How could that be other than a recommendation for the job of Leader of the Labour Opposition? Well perhaps because that job requires relentless negativity and negativity does not seem to be part of Shearer’s genetic make-up.

And then there’s Cunliffe. We’re told there’s a group in the Labour caucus whose ABC mantra is ‘anyone but Cunliffe’. It’s hard to imagine a more childish or stupid approach. Your job, ladies and gentlemen,  is to choose someone who can win the next election, not someone who makes you feel warm and fuzzy. And when you’re making that choice you might like to consider this fact: above almost everything else, Kiwis like leaders who project strength. Kirk, Muldoon, Clark are prime examples. None of them was particularly ‘nice’. Rowling, Lange and Goff were ‘nice’. QED.

Cunliffe may or may not be nice, but he is hugely experienced, has an in-depth understanding of policy, conveys confidence and authority, handles the media superbly and can make mincemeat of anyone on the other side of the House. His ambition should be seen as an advantage not a disadvantage.

My instinct is that the Labour Party is about to make a huge mistake. Their logic, I suspect, is that they must replace an unpopular leader with a popular leader. But it is shallow thinking. What the next Leader of the Opposition must be able to do is best and bring down John Key. That really isn’t a job for ‘a nice guy’.

So will David Shearer ever be Prime Minister of New Zealand? I think it’s entirely possible. Making his run too soon will, however, do nothing for his future prospects.

***

Yes, I think I got that pretty well right!

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46 Comments:

  1. You were right, Brian. If anything, too generous.

    Their logic, I suspect, is that they must replace an unpopular leader with a popular leader.

    I think their logic was (and still is) that they just don’t like the other guy. “They” being a majority in caucus, presumably.

    David Shearer is in the wrong job, for the wrong reason. It is painful to watch, and the pain will only continue until he or his colleagues resolve to end it.

  2. I’m considering cancelling my party membership. Why help a party that won’t help itself because people in caucus have a chip on their shoulder? It’s obvious who most of the members wanted. Apart from VicLabour “the vic click.” Cunliffe is someone I believe in as a leader and future Prime Minister. I don’t think I can bring myself to talk people into voting for Shearer – someone I wouldn’t even vote for myself. I can’t justify that.

  3. I get somewhat tetchy when the very media that should be reporting on Shearer instead decide to ignore him, and follow up their own inactivity by branding him “invisible”.

    Self-fulfilling prophecy, much?

  4. I get somewhat tetchy when the very media that should be reporting on Shearer instead decide to ignore him, and follow up their own inactivity by branding him “invisible”.

    His visibility, or lack of it, is pretty much down to the very media people complaining about it (or gloating over it). Too many egotistical journos are relishing playing kingmaker.

  5. Helen Clark was once branded a ‘whinger’ and would never make PM material. The rest is history.

    BE: As you probably know, I was very much part of that history. But your comparison would rely on Shearer and Clark having similar personalities. They aren’t remotely similar.

  6. I once thought there was something appealing about Shearer that may have been enough to make up for his stumbling rhetoric but I have changed my mind. A Labour leader that indulges in beneficiary bashing to win votes is not someone who I could ever vote for. The lack of compassion shown for those on the bottom of the heap is appalling. I fear beneficiaries are becoming like Jews in Germany during the rise of Nazism in that they are being blamed for all the ills of the economy. The truth is (as Shearer must surely know) in times of high employment beneficiary numbers go down.

  7. I think you are right about Shearer vs Cunliffe and at the current rate neither will become PM or get to be/remain opposition leader. At present that role belongs to the Greens.

    I see Labour’s lack of an overt vision as an invitation to Labour supporters to cross over to the green side.

    Personally I think Grant Robertson is Labour’s best bet. Key has no show against him in intellect (not that difficult) or in debate. A few weeks in the gym and a bit less of Bellamy’s dining and he should scrub up nicely.

  8. @Daz

    Blaming the media won’t wash. Just listen to Shearer’s media appearances. He has plenty of opportunities (a regular spot on a range of TV and radio outlets). He just doesn’t say anything.

    If you disagree, feel free to suggest a “must read” link from the Labour leader.

    @Kat

    Clark is to Shearer what Bill Clinton is to Sarah Palin. Have you actually heard them speak?

  9. “Key went overseas and made 50 million dollars; Shearer went overseas and saved 50 million lives.”

    In other words, Shearer is a bureaucrat/administrator. Which can be a useful skill in politics, and every government needs one. Bill Birch especially for example, no matter what your politics, excelled at it.

    However, in the age of “sound-bite/presidential leaders” is the wrong skill-set to front a party.

    However, while the case you make for Cunliffe is compelling, it begs the question how can a leader purport to govern the country when he will be unable to unite and govern his own caucus?

  10. My real concern is who are the people who spoke to Gower about Cunliffe.I have heard suggstions that Mallard and King were responsible.If they were the culprits it is reprehensible as both are very senior caucus members.
    But whoever it was should be brave enough to front up and admit it.
    It is no good trying the old ploy of blaming the media for all this.
    There is no doubt that at the moment caucus is dysfunctional and leaking like a sieve.

    JC: There are other names being bandied around as gospel by the cognoscenti. Only Duncan and his informants know for sure who talked to him.

  11. Kat, HC was many things but she was never invisible. Love or loathe her you knew she was around (except when she kept her head down in the Rogernomics era)and you knew what she stood for.

    I am beginning to wonder whether Mr Shearer stands for anything. Following the deaths of two soldiers in Afghanistan he was quoted as saying that NZ forces should probably remain there (as one commentator noted, ‘probably’ should be his middle name). I thought Labour Party policy was for a rapid withdrawal of NZ troops. His remark about dole bludgers was quite incredible for a Labour leader. I am beginning to wonder if Negligent Holdings Ltd is his pseudonym.

    Brian for the benefit of us outsiders could you explain to us why the caucus dislikes Cunliffe so much?

  12. Shouldn’t you have held off on this until you could see if Ian Fraser has made any difference to his charge? Even, if most of us think that Shearer has all the mettle of silicone,

  13. I think any change of government will be achieved by a grouping of parties not just the Labour party.
    How would Cunliffe handle a multi-party cooperative approach? I noticed on Maori TV Native Matters last night they put Shane Jones up alongside Winston, Greens, Maori and Hone. He looked a bit pompous but was graceful in agreeing with the other parties where needed , including the need to get out of Afghanistan. How would either of the Davids handle that. Is Labour even considering the need to work with the other minor parties? If the Nats go it will be a coalition that replaces them. Can Labour handle that, who of their potential leaders could bring it off?

  14. I think Cunliffe could do with some “media training”. He either seems smug or comes across as trying not to seem smug.
    Labours turning into a bunch of blouses and i blame Shearer, they should bring back that darren Hughes at least he wasnt a bore

  15. What an astonishing comment from someone above called ” effendi” that you, Brian, should hold off on judging Shearer until Ian Fraser had skilled Shearer up..that’s an appalling indictment of everything remotely to do with fair play, shearer and the nz public..bloody tragic!

    Shearer won’t make it…reminds be a bit of Bill Rowling but i’ll bet any money he won’t be prime minister…ever!

  16. “Shearer has had nearly three years to demonstrate his skill as a debater and about a fortnight to provide some evidence of competence in handling the media. He has done neither. His television appearances have bordered on the embarrassing. He lacks fluency and fails to project confidence or authority. Watching him makes you feel nervous and uncomfortable – a fatal flaw”. I fully agree with the above analysis. Several months ago I had emailed the Labour Party hierarchy, concerning Mr Shearer’s appalling media performances (never received a reply). He simple does not come across as a confident, knowledgeable speaker. Also, why doesn’t Labour tackle the main issues that affect the poor and middle class, such as affordable housing, competitive food pricing, and adequate health programs. There appears to be too many elected Labour members, too busy pushing their own liberalist agenda which usually is a reflection of their selective life style. Where is this effective opposition that we have been waiting for?

  17. Johan, haha i couldnt agree more, implosion happening there in that party

  18. The ABC cabal have destroyed what was left (?) of the Labour Party.

    Garner got it wrong (hardly surprising).

    Labour does not hate Cunliffe.
    Labour has given up on its caucus.
    That is why Labour did not turn out vote at the last election.

    ABC can read “Anyone but caucus”.

  19. More than ever before, superficial media “personality” has disproportionate impact in politics. Both Shearer and Cunliffe have issues in that neither are hard characters, in the sense that Kirk and Muldoon were, yet their nice-ness comes across as to smug for their own good. Neither have the media chops that for example Norman has. Even Brownlee has the ability to shape-shift from used-car salesman to fast-talking minister. So where does that leave Labour? Is Jacinda Ardern for an election or two down the road? Never underestimate the shifts in global attitudes towards ideologies, both in an of themselves and in reaction to tumultuous events.

  20. Shearer will never be a PM. He lacks force of personality. The vacant anodynic smile, reminds me of the meek schoolboy approaching a wallflower at a school dance. Eager to please, but very shaky confidence in the asking for a dance.

  21. As a long term labour voter…..i cant see myself voting in the next election if Labour plan to be National in disguise…I have no idea what Shearer stands for….but he appears weak!

  22. I really hope Cunliffe rolls him. At least Cunliffe can be trusted to do a clever,thoughtful and interesting interview to get and keep my attention. Three years getting constant media sound bytes from a PM Shearer would be degenerating

  23. There would appear to be three parties milling around the leadership debate/ Robertson/Ardern (eventually) Cunliffe and Shearer.

  24. Shearer was a United Nation career staffer, which speaks volumes about his pedigree.(Or lack, thereof.) He shares the same bloodline to that of Kofi Annan: the most thoroughly useless do-gooder diplomat to ever don a suit.

    BE: I have similar doubts about Annan. But, to be fair, the UN will be toothless as long as Russia and China (and America) have the right of veto.

  25. “BE: As you probably know, I was very much part of that history. But your comparison would rely on Shearer and Clark having similar personalities. They aren’t remotely similar.”

    Brian, I was using that comparison in a figurative sense. Clark and Shearer obviously have different personalities. However, Shearer is currently being written off in a similar manner by commentators and a few misguided party members just as Clark was in her early days as opposition leader.

    No one can be sure of the future and as you say it is entirely possible that Shearer will be PM. I would prefer Cunliffe as Shearers deputy at the moment.

    BE: Agreed. Kat.

  26. Brian

    What are the “convenient changes to the way the Labour Party can dump a non-performing leader”? You seem to be saying that it’s unlikely he’ll be replaced before the next election…

  27. Shearer is currently being written off in a similar manner by commentators and a few misguided party members just as Clark was in her early days as opposition leader.

    Quite wrong, Kat. Yes, Clark was written off by commentators (I well remember John Banks on his radio show, saying “the knives are out for Helen”, complete with sound effects).

    But Clark always retained strong support within the Labour Party itself, because of her proven qualities, over many years. If the caucus had panicked and dumped her in 1996, there would have been anger at the grass roots.

    Whereas, if the caucus dumped Shearer tomorrow, there would be widespread relief. Who are his supporters in the party? Apart from the ones getting paid for it?

    The notion that the critics are “a few misguided party members”, is well wide of the mark.

  28. Yes I agree Brian,
    The Leader of Labour must bring down this Government [nice X]
    a good communicator who is politically intelligent is required.

    David Cunliffe does not need Ian Fraser to teach him these skills.
    [nor does Shane Jones]

  29. Let’s face it Shearer is not up to any leadership task. He is merely a bench warmer until someone who has the qualifications to challenge National. Remember many people were quite serious in saying, “considering the economic state of our nation the election was a good one to lose from a labour perspective.

  30. We wait with bated breath to see the transformation of the Hon. David Shearer from the smiling, timorous, flaky leader to…???

    Over to you, Mr. Ian Fraser, media trainer extraordinaire.

  31. Everyone knows that times are changing and so is the game. We can dodge issues and talk about other parties, the strength of the Greens, coalition possibilities, etc – or we can tackle the heart of the problem. It is one of personality.

    Muldoon, Clark and Kirk had power in their personalities. They showed strength. As was the case with MJ Savage, I believe they were the right people at the right time.

    Key and Shearer, in my mind, do not have that magnetic strenth in their personas. What Key has is glitz, which people warmed to in the good times. But I think the people out there have strted to see that there is not a lot of depth in his shine. My instinct tells me that, in lieu of strong leadership, voters have again sadly favoured Key’s sunshine over a lack of substance elsewhere at the 2011 election, in spite of the tougher times that had evolved.

    I’d like to know if the 850,000 people who didn’t vote, who could’ve come from any camp, simply couldn’t see a leader to vote for?

    Enter Shearer as Labour’s answer. But I think they are fighting glitz with bling.

    My instinct, supported by history, tells me that, in challenging times, people will be drawn to leadership. Provide that and I’d like to think that people’s horse sense will do the rest – they’ll turn away from the bling and glitz and follow the leader at the next election.

    In the same way that Greg O’Connor (Police Assn) is publicly seen to be strong and supportive towards his people when they are facing challenges, so too was Andrew Little when he was at the EPMU. He came across very well – supportive, positive, constructive – and natural. Now he is a Labour list MP and I believe he has the potential to take over the reigns in the Labour camp.

    It is that sort of strength, combined with deeper warming qualities than glitz or bling that will really show up the lack of substance in Key’s shine. But Labour will have to turn on some depth and warmth soon. Really soon.

  32. Going by all the opinions expressed here — as well as on other blogs — Shearer’s a lost cause.

    Ian Fraser would have a better chance of making a Bill Rowling sound like Murray Mexted, than attempt a nigh on impossible task of turning Shearer into someone who could even remotely resemble a leader.
    The guy just doesn’t have what it takes. Sorry.

  33. @ Waxy Gordon: “all the opinions expressed here….”

    Not mine. I couldn’t disagree with you more. But then that just my ‘opinion’.

  34. BE:”… the UN will be toothless as long as Russia and China (and America) have the right of veto”.

    Given some of the absurdities being elected to various UN committees (Human Rights, anyone?), that may be no bad thing.

  35. @John Stokes: “My instinct, supported by history, tells me that, in challenging times, people will be drawn to leadership. Provide that and I’d like to think that people’s horse sense will do the rest – they’ll turn away from the bling and glitz and follow the leader at the next election.”

    Yep, that really worked for Germany in the 20s/30s.

  36. A preferred trait of a leader is charisma…I’m not talking about a horse but a person who has great appeal to his/her followers. Also, we need to have issues that will seriously affect voters to turn to this leader. Mr. Shearer does not have charisma and we do not appear to have major socio-economic issues in NZ bad enough for voters to move from the center right to the center left of the political spectrum.

  37. “Helen Clark lacked Shearer’s engaging warmth.”

    On TV, sure. In person, absolutely not.

    I remember going to a couple of Clark speeches back in the mid to late 90s and being shocked at how charismatic Clark was in person compared to her dry TV persona. I remember saying at the time: “if enough NZers see her in person, she will win easily”.

  38. Lee Churchman

    That, you were enamoutrd by Helen Clark, seeing her, doesn’t mean that everyone else would be so taken.

  39. I think it’s a little naive to say that the Labour caucus doesn’t ‘like’ Cunliffe.

    I doubt it’s that personal – probably the caucus see him as a threat – most of them are the old guard from Aunty Helen’s rule. Although in many ways she was a good leader, she was pretty hopeless as far as surrounding herself with the brightest and the best went – she preferred sycophants and attack dogs.

    These were the people behind Shearer’s leadership – they probably thought he would be easy to mould – the last thing those guys want is a leader who thinks, has a consistent vision and requires them to have some integrity.

    In their obviously poor opinion of voters, they seemed to think Shearer was some kind of counter to Key – most of the electorate who don’t like Key aren’t looking for his equivalent – I would say we are looking for a viable alternative and that involves some vision, integrity and leadership. All qualities Labour has jettisoned in it’s pathetic drive to regain power for it’s own sake – hence the rise of the Green Party’s popularity – they have been consistent, professional and intelligent – all qualities the Labour front bench sorely lacks.

    If Labour is going to survive it needs to reflect honestly on where they lost the plot – listen to the rank and file, decide on core values and stand up for them – exactly as Cunliffe has done in his New Lynn speech.

    This nonsense is a side-show – a party imploding because power became more important to them than any shred of principle they’ve managed to cling onto. It reeks of the kind of nasty personality politics that Mallard specialises in and Andrew Little indulged in when he was party president – it managed to lose them that election and wont win them any voters when they turn it on themselves. The whole thing is actually pretty disgusting.

  40. I remember going to a couple of Clark speeches back in the mid to late 90s and being shocked at how charismatic Clark was in person compared to her dry TV persona. I remember saying at the time: “if enough NZers see her in person, she will win easily”. Wow, I have been a Labour supporter for many years, however I have always found Helen Clark as natural as saccharine. She comes across as a person who is not comfortable within her own skin. Why do we need to be subjected to altered photos of Helen altered using photoshop.
    I watched the new modified Mr. Shearer on TV this morning displaying his “staunch” look in a short interview. To me, he seemed unnatural and phoney.

  41. To WAKE UP (17 Aug, 16:53)

    Mmmm. Thank you for the feedback. I would argue that you are right! In the same way that I’d argue the British, in the same era, were drawn to Churchill, and we were drawn to Savage (it was common to have a photo of MJ Savage in NZ homes back then!). More recently, as mentioned, voters were drawn to Muldoon, Kirk and Clark.

  42. 2014 election will be for National to win, not for Labour Greens, NZ First, Mana to. By default The opposition will make it over the line … all National have to do is keep on doing the same which will guarantee them a loss in the next election.

  43. As it stands Labour is utterly useless. They need to re-evaluate where they stand in the 21st century and move on from their tired old unionist past.

    ‘Workers’ today are not in unions. Unionists are more likely teachers and public servants.

    Sure, Labour will likely get into power again, but only because of MMP and the lack of a competent right-of-centre party. Then woe betide poor old NZ. Economic suicide is what they offer us, wrapped up in a pretty ‘caring for the poor’ package.

  44. @ Kimbo August 14th, 2012 at 14:05

    Quote: ““Key went overseas and made 50 million dollars; Shearer went overseas and saved 50 million lives.”

    In other words, Shearer is a bureaucrat/administrator.”

    ???

    Saving 5o million lives is the mark of a “bureaucrat/administrator”?

    Maybe we need more “bureaucrat/administrators” then?

    Funny thing – I never saw the Tracey family in “Thunderbirds” as “bureaucrat/administrators” went they saved lives.

    Ah, the naivete of my ongoing youth…

  45. i have no faith in the mainstream media they are corrupt brought and paid for . the mainstream media are little more than the propaganda arm of the national party .