Brian Edwards Media

Why David Shearer should give up acting: He’s just no good at it.

State of the Nation speech 2013


In her post yesterday first-class honours graduand in Political Studies, JC, explained the rules for next week’s confidence vote on the Labour Party leadership and for the selection process which will be automatically triggered if David Shearer fails to win 60% plus one (or 22 out of 34 Caucus members) support for his leadership.

If Shearer doesn’t get those 22 votes in Caucus, it seems highly unlikely that he will survive a leadership contest a month or so later, in which Caucus, the party membership and union affiliates have a 40/40/20 say. Failure to gain the required numbers in next week’s Caucus vote would itself be corrosive of confidence and support.

On the other hand, Shearer’s chances of getting those numbers have been enhanced by his improved showing in the polls following his Labour Party Conference speech last November and his axing of David Cunliffe from Labour’s front bench. And it is the polls which will decide Shearer’s ultimate fate.  

That is not such good news for the Labour leader. To paraphrase Aristotle, one rousing speech does not a victor make, and there are already signs of weakening poll support for Shearer. As several commentators have noted, the media increasingly turn to the Greens for comment, as if they, rather than Labour, were the official Opposition.

And Shearer’s media image remains a problem. The blame for that must lie in part with bad advice.

Faced with criticism of his seemingly ineffectual leadership Shearer was advised to talk and act tough. He clearly took that advice.  His essential message to the November conference was: I’m running the show, I make the decisions, I’m in charge. That was the talking tough component. His subsequent interviews were notable for the number of times he said ‘I, me, my’, a  self-conscious attempt to reassert his personal dominance of the party.

Acting tough, in the theatrical sense of the term, came in the form of the public flogging of David Cunliffe. Cunliffe had declined to give an absolute assurance that he would support Shearer in the February confidence vote. He was not only entitled to do so, but right to do so. Shearer’s demand – by no means, I understand, restricted to Cunliffe –  that he not merely reveal his voting intentions for the secret Caucus ballot but guarantee to support the leader in that ballot –  was democratically, constitutionally and morally improper.

The show trial of Cunliffe nonetheless proceeded, soon to be followed by the predictable verdict of banishment to the back benches.

At the time, I wrote an open letter to Shearer accusing him of dishonesty and described his bullying treatment of Cunliffe, intended primarily for public consumption, as evidence not of strength in leadership but of weakness.

Nothing since has provided me with any reason to change that opinion. Shearer is still doing most of the talking about himself, still involved in the  first-person defence and praise of his own leadership: ‘I, me my…’  And there it was again in his State of the Nation speech: ‘I can tell you that today I’m refreshed. I’m fired up and I’m raring to go.

The somewhat curious thing is that the lines, delivered with almost evangelical fervour, weren’t spontaneous; they were scripted, there word for word in his speech notes. But they  cannot disguise the fact that Shearer should not have to ‘tell’ his audience that he’s fired up and raring to go, that it should have been obvious not just on this occasion, but since the day he was elected leader. It hasn’t.

Nonetheless, as it was intended to, the line made it onto  both the TVNZ and TV3 news bulletins along with this little piece of stand-up: ‘Two days ago, John Key had an epiphany: We have a youth unemployment problem – we need apprentices. Good on him. I thank the focus group that brought that to his attention.’

Actually it’s a pretty good line. But have another  look at Patrick Gower’s TV3 News report on the speech. After both the ‘fired up’ and the ‘focus group’ lines Shearer gives this slightly self-conscious, questioning smile, which seems to say, ‘Did you like that? That was a good one, wasn’t it?’

The simple fact is that Shearer isn’t comfortable in the ’talk and act tough’ role. The best demonstration of this was in his response to the media scrum after Cunliffe had been dismembered in Caucus. He was a stumbling, bumbling, incoherent wreck. I suspect he was deeply upset by the lynch-mob mentality and the savagery that had dominated the previous hour. He eventually walked off, refusing to answer any more journalists’ questions.

Shearer is a reasonable man, a conciliator by nature. He has to stop trying so hard to be something he isn’t. He can’t carry it off and we will see through it. He is a poor actor.

This week John Key gave him  a lesson in strength. He sacked two under-performing ministers, in all probability ending their parliamentary careers. Yet he’s taken little or no flak  for what seems like a pretty brutal thing to do. Maybe that’s because he didn’t act the strong leader, didn’t say much about it at all, was matter-of-fact about a necessary decision.  Maybe that’s the lesson.

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  1. When Shearer was chosen (by the Labour caucus) to be party leader I had some hope that he would be a diffeent sort of politician. He promised to be a different sort of politician.

    Since then he has seemed to try harder and harder to be a ‘same old’ politician, but the harder he tries – and they harder his coaches try to mold him – the more insincere and out of his depth he looks.

    Shearer may survive as leader next week, but if he continues to repeat this poorly executed charade he may condemn Labour to not survive as a major political force.

    He needs to either find himself in politics, or leave it to someone who can at least give the appearance of being authentic.

  2. I have commented before on your blog under my own name, but on this occasion, I must keep my identity from the general readership as this comment would have adverse effects on a colleague – rather than myself!

    Your instinct about the poor advice being given to DS is spot on in my view. He has been let down again and again by Fran Mold as Press Secretary (the GCSB non existent tapes being a prime example). The reason why the Greens are reported more than Labour is because they can give you a response in 20 mins, Labour might take two days! Surely any Press Sec worth their salt would fix that issue as a priority, and yet, after 2 years with Goff and a year with Shearer, Mold has moved at the pace of a comatose sloth!

    Likewise, his replacement CoS has yet to prove himself capable of the job, and I can not imagine him taking on a similar role in the Beehive should Labour win in 2014 (it’s worth noting that his first choice of CoS was pushed out by Mold – she obviously felt threatened, or that someone might make her do her job).

    I think a lot of Labour supporters agree that some of the old faces need to go come the next election. The reality is that some of the tired old faces behind the scenes also need to go for us to stand any chance of winning the next election.

    BE: While there may be good reasons for your wishing to remain anonymous in this matter, it rather undermines the authority of your comments about a member of David Shearer’s staff. I’ll leave the comment because people at this level in politics are expected to have thicker skins than the rest of the population. I will of course publish any response or correction that Fran may wish to make.

  3. “Maybe that’s the lesson”

    For some, Shearer will never be right. If he quietly goes about his tasks he attracts criticism for being seemingly invisible, if he stands up to deliver he is called an ‘actor’ and should desist.

    As for John Key sacking two ‘under-performing’ ministers, so why stop there!? I would say that is more a lesson in political cunning.

  4. “For some, Shearer will never be right.”

    For most who thought Shearer may lead Labour in a fresh new direction (there were some, including me) hope has become despair.

  5. I too suspect some very, very bad advice and have for some time. Interesting to see A Nony Mouse, who seems to have some inside information, confirming this.

    Alas for Shearer it seems it’s only media people who can tell bad media training and advice from inherently bad politicking, and fair enough too – a politician should be astute enough to identify the source of the problem and excise it. So the question is: does Shearer not see, or will he not act? And in both cases, if not, why not?

    I see much advice to Shearer to speak more off-the-cuff. Yet a much better natural orator, Winston Peters, would read the speeches I researched and wrote for him completely as written. He’d deviate occasionally to drop in an anecdote or a joke, but always return to the script. And doing so contributed – admittedly combined with a myriad of other factors – to get NZ First to its highest-ever poll rating.

    So there’s something to be said for sticking to the script, but you have to ensure the script isn’t written for an entirely different actor, as Shearer’s seem to be.

    Incidentally, Winston frequently used to tell the apocryphal story of some UK Minister who fired his speechwriter and made him work out his notice. Like Winston, the Minister rarely rehearsed – the first time he saw the speech was when he was reading it. One day he was heading toward a dramatic peroration: “I have a vision which will make Britain great again, and it is…” and turned the page to read “And now you’re on your own, you bastard”.

  6. If Labour wants to square up to John Key and WIN ! – they have to pick the BEST person for the job! This is Cunliffe. He has the charisma, media savvy and the intellect. He has the support of the ordinary Labour member and voter. Nothing else matters !

  7. Poor ol’ Shearer: a deer-in-headlights trying to stare down the logging truck barrelling towards him; or the boy with a timorous grin, out to curry favour with the schoolyard bully; or he’s your gruff ‘Speights-drinking southern man’ with falsetto cadence; or he’s your archetype U.N bureaucrat whose four highlights of any working day are morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and hometime. Take your pick.

  8. A Nony Mouse: I wouldn’t place all the blame on Fran Mold. I think much of it can be laid at the feet of the ‘Anyone But Cunliffe’ (ABC for short) caucus club, some of whom have been afflicted with that condition known as “Tall Poppy Syndrome”.

    Shearer’s conundrum is that these are the people who made him leader in the first place, and now he is beholden to them. An astute, experienced politician would never allow themselves to be placed in such a position. Best example? Helen Clark.

  9. Good advice to give up acting and pretending to be something you are not. If you can’t speak from the heart you’ll never win.

    Even Winston who has spent his life faking sincerity can only carry a small minority. The rest see straight through him.

  10. Russel Norman is nowhere near as bad as Shearer but he can come across a bit passionless and as opportunist rather than sincere at times.

    Metirea Turei has been fronting for the Greens much more this year, whether you agree with her or not she seems to believe in what she says, sometimes passionately. I’ve seen her in campaign meetings and she attracts genuine attention from (some of) the audience. Perhaps Metiria will be used as a significant point of difference as the Greens contest Labour for attention.

  11. Shearer usually speaks from the heart. But that is not good enough for some who want a sharp shooter to blow holes with a debating style akin to the dubious skills of a pool hall hustler.

    We already have a currency trading gambler con-man pretend stand up comedian cum Hollywood wannabe as PM, why Labour should not follow that example I would have thought is obvious. But some who are out to destabilse his leadership will go to any lengths it seems. Sadly they may yet get there way. Or then perhaps not, the polls will win in the end.

  12. Politically David Shearer is in the wrong paddock, sad but true. He has kindness written all over his face. Political rivals eat that sort of virtue for breakfast. After last years leadership skirmish Cunliffe was hungry, nothing has changed, he still is!

    Political charisma can be attributed to a leader in one of two ways:

    (a)because the general populace like them and perceive them to be competent (whether or not that’s true) to represent NZ both nationally and internationally; or

    b) because the general populace dislike them but still perceive them to be competent (whether or not that’s true) to represent NZ both nationally and internationally.

    I personally think, you’re only as good as the team you put around you and if you make the strong decisions about who you’ll have on your team when you are in Opposition, you signal to us (the general populace) that you just might make the same strong decisions in the political seat that matters — as our PM.

  13. I have been struggling for some time to grasp what it is that so many of Labour’s Inner Circle have against David Cunliffe.

    For what it is worth, I now believe that his ‘problem’ is that he talks like an economist who has some knowledge of the business world.

    This is an anathema to the members of the Rainbow-Unions cliques that dominate the Party at the moment.

    Nobody else (Shearer included) is at all comfortable talking about the economy – which has led to the extraordinary situation that alternative economic policies are being dictated by the Green Party.

    In retrospect it is not so much Helen Clark that the Party is missing but Michael Cullen. While Gen-X managers in the Public Service were generally anti-Clark, ‘Dr Cullen’ always received their deference and respect. And the electorate correspondingly trusted Labour to manage the economy with some degree of competence.

    With its current senior line-up and in-built animosities, it matters little whether Shearer or Cunliffe is the figure-head.

    There is simply not enough intellectual economic grunt to persuade the electorate to switch horses.

  14. “I have been struggling for some time to grasp what it is that so many of Labour’s Inner Circle have against David Cunliffe”

    Keith, whatever blue horizon you hail from your understanding of any ‘inner circle’ is zero. That you suggest Labour is short on ‘intellectual economic grunt’ just shows your Nact troll pedigree.

  15. We have a government that stumbles along without policy or ideas. Most ministers are kept from the media as they can’t be trusted not to stuff up. When they do stuff up Key and Joyce are rushed in to pick up the pieces. With this background one would expect Labour to be streets ahead in the poles but they are not. This is so frustrating where are the ideas where is the policy where is the substance. That’s what’s needed not film flam and marketing.of one person. Someone said the Greens will give you an answer in ten minutes but they also have a plan and they have ideas and don’t rely on just one person.

  16. ” That you suggest Labour is short on ‘intellectual economic grunt’ just shows your Nact troll pedigree.”

    Kat, that’s a very poor show of attacking the messenger. You’re the one showing the traits of a troll.

    Do you follow comments at The Standard? That is very red and green leaning, and there is a lot of criticism despair at the lack of obvious talent on the Labour front bench. Calls are frequently made for a changing of the tired ‘same old’ guard.

    Cunliffe is widely regarded as the best Labour intellect, especially on economic matters, and he has been dumped from speaking on anything.

    If Shearer is serious about repairing, reviving and rebuilding Labour he needs to bring Cunliffe right back up into the mix in his upcoming reshuffle, and openly address the extensive dissent and diaspppointment in the party.

    If not Labour are going to continue to be split in fighting factions and Shearer’s leadership will continue to very publicly be questioned. And most of that questioning is coming from his own members.

  17. @ Kat

    “Keith, whatever blue horizon you hail from your understanding of any ‘inner circle’ is zero. That you suggest Labour is short on ‘intellectual economic grunt’ just shows your Nact troll pedigree”.

    And further to Pete George’s post, I’ll call your bluff, Kat:

    Who are these Labour caucus members who contribute to a plethora of “intellectual economic grunt”?

    Numbers and names, please – not changing/trolling the subject to Kay and National, which is not the subject of the thread…

  18. There’s little more stressful than being someone you’re not. If Shearer tries to keep it up it’ll kill him in more ways than one. Shearer should be Shearer, not try to be Cunliffe.

  19. Shearer (with his molders) seems to be trying to be more like Key. That was shameful in the opening speeches at Parliament yesterday, Shearer followed Key’s lead by indulging in hissy abuse. It was unbecoming of the leaders of the country.

    Key deserves the strongest criticism for that, but Shearer lowered himself too so is no better.

  20. @ Kat

    Collectively, the Labour Party couldn’t summon the stamina for an economic intellectual wheeze yet alone the grunt. Where are their credentials?

    Not one of them has bought or owned a business, been an entrepreneur or self-starter in any private enterprise. They are all ex-civil servants, jaded career politicians, teachers, social workers, second-tier reporters on the urban beat, consultants, therapists, theorists, committee members, social-thinkers and head scratchers.

    How can anyone — with business nous — have any confidence in this motley lot articulating any economic model for this country to progress?

  21. @Gypsum, absolutely true. However, some business wide boys like Fletchers will always see opportunities to persuade the socialists to tip money into their pockets, just as the exporters are currently lobbying for.

  22. Considering the dogs breakfast National have left, the Mickey Mouse Party campaigning on “Free Cheese For All” stand a better chance than National.

  23. David Shearer is the stereotypical sophomore, trying very hard to act like a frat boy.

    Sadly, no amount of coaching can change his behavioural DNA. He is destined to remain a wide-eyed political greenhorn, floundering about in stupefied wonderment. Forever.

  24. @Gypsum


    Since 1935 successive Labour govts have a combined record of increasing GDP annual growth by approx 4.1% and for the similar time frame successive National govts & including the current ‘gamblers’ govt approx 2.9%!?

    Source NZ Stats.

  25. @Pete George

    In a previous post on this site I stated my preference for Labour leadership. That was and still is; David Shearer as leader and David Cunliffe as deputy.

  26. @Kimbo

    Hydrogen and stupidity are in abundance in this universe. No doubt you will want to argue the point in which order.

  27. @ Kat


    Since 1935 successive Labour govts have a combined record of increasing GDP annual growth by approx 4.1% and for the similar time frame successive National govts & including the current ‘gamblers’ govt approx 2.9%!?

    Source NZ Stats”.

    He he he. If you are going to up the bet with a busted flush of an argument, it helps if your cards aren’t showing. To refocus you, Kat, from the distraction of a supposed 80 year vista, and back to your original point: –

    “That you suggest Labour is short on ‘intellectual economic grunt’ just shows your Nact troll pedigree”.

    …how about you focus your attention on the Labour caucus c2013?

    Names and numbers, please.

    Tell you what, I’ll make it easier for you. How about I throw in the name of the supposed great white hope for Labour’s future, Jacinda Ardern. A degree in communications from Waikato Uni, and very photogenic (which she utilises well – and good luck to her, and politics on her part to do so).

    Yet she can’t even win a traditional Labour electorate with Green collusion against a middle-ranked National caucus member, who has only now been given a chance at the bottom of Key’s cabinet rankings.

    So stick to just Ardern and Nikki Kaye, and kindly make the case that Jacinda has economic intellectual heft, and Kaye is the light-weight.

    Or is calling out trolls just a one-way street with you?

    Personally, I think Gypsum has your number. Roll on 2014, because your posts are going to bring me a lot of joy on the journey there!

  28. “Not one of them has bought or owned a business, been an entrepreneur or self-starter in any private enterprise.”

    David Parker fits that description, and he’s Labour’s spokesperson on finance.

    David Cunliffe has worked as a business consultant and is considered to have considerable intellect and financial nous – and he’s been praised for his work as minister on local loop unbundling. However as we know David Shearer has banished Cunliffe from any significant caucus role.

    But one critical thing stands out – Shearer’s apparent lack of financial or political intellect. And there is a lack of depth in his caucus talent, partly because of low numbers, partly due to MPs past their used by date hanging on to their jobs.

    How Shearer reshuffles his bench and speaking roles, including whether he reinstates Cunliffe or not, is critical to how Labour will be seen to be rebuilding. Will he keep rewarding old cronies who installed him as leader? Or does he have a clue about what Labour needs to revitalise – and has he got the gumption to do something bold about it.

  29. While talking about acting it’s also worth mentioning the makeup department – something’s been nagging me about the photo of Shearer on this post. It doesn’t look like the real Shearer.

    And there’s a new photo of Shearer being used at – he (or the photo) seems to have had a makeover. Once again it doesn’t quite look like the real deal.

    Manufacturing a superficial visual image is not unusual in politics, but it adds to Shearer’s lack of authenticity.

  30. I’m reminded of professional wrestling (seriously) in that the wrestlers portray persona’s IE baby-face, heel, naive, sneaky etc etc

    But the best ones are those that are exaggerations of what they’re like in real life

    The best examples of this would be The Rock and Stone Cold who both went through various persona’s before they found the fit and became superstars

    So the “tough guy” act isn’t working then maybe he needs to exaggerate his own qualities like nice guy, competent manager etc etc

    BE: Yes, professional wrestling takes the form of the morality play, a struggle between good and evil. This is why it’s necessary for the bad guys to exaggerate their badness and the good guys to exaggerate their suffering at the bad guys’ hands.

  31. @Pete George, Cunliffe destroyed his economic credibility when Labour supported some of the Green’s mad economic policies for political reasons last year despite knowing they would be disastrous for NZ. He may be smart but he is not trustworthy.

  32. Alan – I didn’t say he was smart, that’s different to having intellect. He seems to me to be a politician of convenience trying to achieve his ambitions.

    His bids (and non-bids) for leadership haven’t been successful, partly at least due to not being very smart. For example picking Nania Mahuta for a running mate may have cost him the top job. He seemed to be going for token female/Maori without taking ability into account enough.

  33. Alan, yes, those ‘wide boys’ at Fletchers down in Christchurch are currently enjoying the tipping of money into their pockets from Keys National ‘socialist’ govt.

  34. David Shearer = The Little Engine That Couldn’t

  35. @Pete George

    Gosh, David Parker’s business associates and his bio-tech business start-ups didn’t really happen!?

  36. @Kimbo

    One good use for gypsum is as a fertilizer. I’m sure that will help you on your journey to 2014.

  37. Kat, I’ll clarify, I meant David Parker fits the description of “has bought or owned a business, been an entrepreneur or self-starter in any private enterprise.”

  38. Pete, thanks for the clarification, for a moment there I thought you meant David Parker never bought or owned a business, been an entrepreneur or self-starter in any private enterprise.

  39. @Kat, I agree re Fletchers and deplore it.

  40. If the country had a good opposition with a confident spontaneous leader – not the still bluffing Shearer – there could be even an early election called, as people are so frustrated about Key and his Ministers like Parata. Not even a few see Shearer who still find hard to speak fluently, as a Prime Minister. The gay marriage bill will keep family people away from Labour this time. Winston Peters could be the biggest achiever in 2014.

  41. @ J. Antill; Kimbo:

    Anyone who accuses David Cunliffe of being in possession of charisma is being totally unfair on the man, as is the suggestion that Jacinda Ardern is photogenic. Lockwood Smith is photogenic, John Key is photogenic, Chris Hipkins and Winston Peters are photogenic. Jacinda Ardern, however, is not. Worse, she is blessed with facial features which tend to distract one’s focus from the message she is delivering. I’m sure she has many endearing qualities, but being photogenic is not one of them.

  42. He has the media charisma of a boxer in the ring with a bloody good sporting chance!!!!…. Looks like he is there to win!!!…..This is what the working class male wants……Charisma is not to be equated with a bland, pleasant face. In fact charisma can look downright ugly but it looks real!….It can also look like the sun has come out when it cracks a smile….The middle class of course like the snappy intellect!

  43. Hi Kat

    I stand by my comments. In fact, John Key has formally endorsed David Cunliffe as an economist
    [see: ]

    You should see me in my bum pelmet when I’m roasting dwarfs

    Lots of love

    The Nact Troll

  44. The Labour caucus who voted to retain Shearer as leader clearly have a death wish. They must be the only ones in the country incapable of seeing that, charming humanitarian and thoroughly decent bloke though he may be, he is utterly useless as a politician, let alone party leader. In that role he is inexperienced, vague, bumbling, indecisive, ineffectual, and totally devoid of the authority, determination, and burning ambition required of anyone who aspires to be Prime Minister.

    His tenure has been characterised by repeated dismal failures to hold Key and the government to account. The government’s manifold blunders and devious, deplorable practices of last year were God-given opportunities for the opposition to make political capital and illustrate their (the government’s) self-serving hypocrisy, but what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Only deafening silence from the opposition front bench. They were let off the hook by Labour’s total failure to do its job. The Greens seem to be filling the void, and will pick up support accordingly. They’ll certainly get mine because I will not vote for a party led by an individual who is manifestly not up to the job.

    The minions of the Labour party have become their own worst enemy, letting their personal likes and dislikes influence their choice of leader, when it should be a matter of choosing the best, most effective, most determined leader for the job. And that’s not Shearer, by a country mile. As a consequence the party has become almost as insignificant as it is ineffectual. Personally I’ll vote for the party that has the best chance of preventing Key and his wealthy cronies from getting another term. On current rankings Labour is at the bottom of that list, and I’ll bet I’m just one of a large number with that view.

  45. I totally agree with Ant435

    The most disturbing thing is Mr Sharer also appears not to have the support of grass roots labour supporters.

    I’m afraid if labour doesn’t shake up its parliamentary team and produce a leader people will follow they will be eclipsed by the Greens in a couple of electoral cycles.

    Mr Shearer does have great value to Labour just not as leader.

    National had no chance until Michelle found John to sell the same old nothing policies the public has already rejected a decade ago during Nationals last term.

    Maybe there is a lesson here for labour.
    If labour was to find a good salesman then National is toast.
    Its simple, National have no effective policy to look after New Zealand only their own.