The Unfortunate Experiment: 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.
CONFESSION, THEY SAY, is good for the soul, so I have a confession to make. I was wrong about David Shearer. I made the mistake of believing that a politician with a brilliant back-story couldn’t fail to give us an equally brilliant front-story. Well, as Sportin’ Life tells the true believers in Porgy & Bess:
“It ain’t necessarily so.”
And, now I (and I suspect you) know it ain’t so. David Shearer is a thoroughly likeable, thoroughly decent bloke, and his record at the United Nations is truly inspirational, but, come on, let’s face it: he ain’t anybody’s kind of leader.
David Shearer, like David Lange, is a creature of the factional and personal animosities dividing the Labour caucus. Bluntly: he was put there by an unholy alliance of right- and left-wing MPs to prevent the Labour Party’s choice, David Cunliffe, from taking the top job.
David Lange, however, had one thing going for him that David Shearer does not – a gift for oratory. When David Lange opened his mouth the words flowed out in gorgeous, highly ornamented and persuasive profusion. His soaring rhetoric had the power to transport entire audiences to the vivid world of the Langean imagination. “I see a country”, he would say, and within a few inspirational sentences, we could see it too.
David Shearer, by contrast, can barely string ten words together. And, when he says “I see a country”, he means Finland.
In a funny sort of way, this is a good thing. The problem with David Lange’s remarkable gift for public speaking was that it masked the fact that he was actually the creature of Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett and Mike Moore – the right-wing “Fish & Chip Brigade”. He was just so damned good at painting word pictures that people never stopped to ask themselves how firmly he was attached to the values and traditions of the Labour Party. Or, how well-versed he was in economics. We were all so entranced, so delighted that at long last Labour had someone who could beat Rob Muldoon, that we never bothered to track down the answers to those awkward, but vital, questions ... until it was too late.
David Shearer’s singular lack of political leadership skills has spared us that fate. If the first David’s story was a tragedy, the second’s is pure farce, and everybody can see it. In certain Labour circles his elevation to the leadership was hailed as “the experiment”. In those same circles, it is now being described as “the unfortunate experiment”.
That kind of vicious, stiletto thrust might have been avoided if David Shearer had made up for what he lacked as a speaker with what he offered as a thinker. If only, in his two, much ballyhooed, “direction-setting” speeches he had given the country some juicy, red, ideological meat to chew on. If only he had been able to plainly set forth an over-arching philosophical framework from which later, more specific, Labour policies could be hung, then none of the muttering and stuttering would have mattered.
But those two speeches showed not the slightest trace of “big picture” thinking. On the contrary, they showed every sign of having been inspired by an Auckland-based focus-group, and composed by a Wellington-based committee. The only picture they painted was one that revealed Labour’s deficiencies. That not only did the party lack leadership, but it also lacked ideas. Oh, that Labour possessed speechwriters like The West Wing’s Toby Zeigler and Sam Seaborne. (Oh, that it possessed a President Jed Bartlett!)
So, what have we learned from this debacle? What has Labour learned?
If by “Labour” you mean its caucus, I would say absolutely nothing. If you’re talking about the party itself, nothing it didn’t know already: that Caucus picked the wrong guy.
It’s time for the Labour Caucus to put an end to “the unfortunate experiment” and begin a new one. They could call it “democracy” – and stop taking their party for Grant-ed.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 April 2012.