Friday 27 April 2012

The Unfortunate Experiment

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.


Anonymous said...

The Labour mandarins are no doubt in their bunkers just like Berlin in its dying days, shifting long wiped out battalions here and there waiting for the deployment of the famed secret weapon to restore the 1000 year Reich(aka Helengrad) – calling for the supreme sacrifice from its faithful, while purging the non believers (make sure your door is locked at night Chris ). Face reality, Labour is dead and sooner they hoist the white flag the better. Whilst Labour is imploding from the centre, Key will have a free ride right upto the gates of the Riechstag.

PGM said...

There was genuine hope amongst party activists in Shearer, as someone from outside the box and who could connect with the parts of the electorate who have abandoned Labour.

There was genuine fear amongst the grass roots that Cunliffe's arrogance and used-car-salesman persona would push Labour lower than Goff did.

I think Shearer needs a couple more months and needs to fire Mold and Pagani - then things will improve.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear the wonderful UN man with so much compassion isn't up to it....neither is the whole party! I dare say there are even people out there who think Grant Robertson is electable....dream on!
Time to pack up and finally admit tnat Labour as we have known it is done for-the world has moved on and left them far behind.

Olwyn said...

@ PGM, 9.16am: You are overlooking the fact that there was also great support for Cunliffe among the party members and activists - mainly because he was able to articulate, affirm and show commitment to core Labour values. In Auckland at least, the support for Cunliffe appeared to far exceed the support for Shearer.

I agree that those who supported Shearer had the hopes in him that you claim, but it does not seem to me that they were a majority.

Red Pete said...

Trotter writes of Lange:

"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."

As a young worker I watched the unravelling of the UK Callahan Labour govt. in the late 1970's, so came back to NZ in 1980 with the knowledge that Labour could become an open party of "financialisation." I was repulsed by the ideas coming from the Labour party types I met in Auckland in the early 1980's - they were all pushing what we now call "Rogernomics." It dawned on me that NZ was being set up for the same type of right-wing sell out as had just happened with UK Labour. Such was my compulsive reflex against Piggy Muldoon and the Nats that I voted for Labour in 1984, sure that they had a hidden right-wing agenda and were about to do a sell-out.

In retrospect we can see how organised the coup around Douglas was, to the extent that a massive effort was undertaken to split the right vote with Bob Jones setting up his "New Zealand Party."

I talked to lots of rank and file types in those days as I was a member of the Storeman & Packer's union. I didn't expect the ordinary members to have much understanding of what was going on, but the sheer ignorance and complacency of the Officials and Delegates was breath-taking. Still, as one individual against the tide of history what can you do?

Today though, we know the tide is running in the opposite direction. This entire system is collapsing and no single cohesive idea unifies the right wing. They have run out of ideas, at the same time as the system has run out of money. The Geneva-based Bank of International Settlements recently announced that fake capital has reached 23x the volume of the real productive economy! Even if the bosses managed to divert 100% of the real economy of goods and services it would be inadequate. Austerity can't possibly pay down a debt of this size by bleeding the poor and workers for a fraction of 1/23rd of this debt, so the financial system will collapse at some point.

For the majority of the population reality is that your savings are worthless, and about to be foreclosed by the Reserve Bank to prop up the banksters, see:

your assets are bound to drop sharply in value, your "Kiwisaver" pension will be raided and worthless long before you can use it, etc. This fact of the profitability crisis, along with environmental, resource, hegemonic and legitimacy crises are the real issues confronting us today. For an in-depth discussion see:

Yet I don't see any discussion along these lines by any Labour Party types. Labour seems stuck in another time of 'business-as-usual', calculating how much of capitalism's surplus they can get away with diverting back to their supporters without starting an open class war. There is no surplus, and that battle Labour and the union leaders avoided back in the 1970's is going to have to be fought-out soon. It will be rough, but it's not the 1970's anymore. I don't believe the rich could get away with an 'Argentina' or 'Chile' today, even if it still makes the blood of comfortable lefty bureaucrats run cold.

As things stand, Labour is almost certain to loose in 2014. If they don't embrace the issues facing humanity today, the Labour Party will vanish soon after. I don't believe Labour is capable of coming to terms with reality though Chris, we need new ideas to defend us in these times. Labour can't embrace "democracy" because it either doesn't understand or refuses to face reality. And that's as true of Cunliffe, as it is of Shearer.


Anonymous said...

Don't blame the Labour caucus. Yes, they are hopeless, but I'm not sure there is much that they could do.

The voting public won't take its medicine, and just want things to get back to the way they were. This is the sad story of our time.

Oh well...

Paulus said...

I believe that Mold and Pagani have gone.

What the Labour Party has to do is to stop considering who and what they are,and to look at how New Zealand is now, and is expected to develop from 2012 on. It has naturally evolved over the last say 30 years into to selectively middle class society.

Various Governments of both hues have created many years of natural growth and a better "overall" more balanced society, albeit some would dispute this strongly.
They would tend to look backwards to "the glory days" of the 1950s and 1960s, and not forward to 2050 and a society they would like to dream of, and what kind of society we want our let our children grow into

GDP's have increased over the years to the of our society. betterment of all in fact.

Labour can no longer look to the poor union members and the underclass (who do not vote anyway). It must take a much broader view

Our Country has grown naaturally and exponentially. We should embrace this and stop bickering over irrelevances.

This requires leadership who can give us that vision. I am not sure that I can see anybody of any party with that vision.

Victor said...


You refer to "Cunliffe's arrogance and used-car-salesman persona"

As an ordinary voter, I see none of this, merely a capable and focused politician who shows the occasional sign of understanding the economic big picture.

However, I've only lived in New Zealand for 27 years and I might not yet fully understand all the cultural nuances. Is this something to do with the "tall poppy syndrome", of which I've occasionally heard?

Brendan McNeill said...


I agree that Cunliffe appears capable, articulate and somewhat pragmatic. He would have undoubtedly been a better choice for Labour.

Shearer reminds me of George Bush Senior, aiming for a 'kinder gentler America'. An all round 'nice guy' but out of his depth politically.

I suspect that short of an unforeseen economic event, Labour is set to sit on the side lines again at the next election.

The real issue for them to address, is if they will be the second political party in NZ, or run third to the Greens.

This I suspect is a very real possibility.

Anonymous said...

There was an old feller called Shearer
who, as the election drew nearer,
said " vote for our cause,"
- scratch of head and big pause -
" just elect me, then I'll make it clearer"

Victor said...


In terms of sheer ability (as opposed to political morality), I think you're being rather unfair to George H W Bush.

He was a foreign policy maestro, like few other presidents of the postwar era. Lord knows what went wrong with his genes!

It was, however, "the economy, stupid" that put paid to him. And therein lies a lesson for all our leaders.

Apart from that, I have the unfamiliar (though not unwelcome) sensation of agreeing with you.

Anonymous said...

Now would be a good time for a labour leader who called for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange - and meant it.

It might put a bit of meaning back into politics and that is what is needed.

Anonymous said...

"CONFESSION, THEY SAY, is good for the soul, so I have a confession to make. I was wrong about David Shearer."

Chris, the paradox is obvious. Given this admission, how do we know that any of your future prognostications are accurate or worth listening to?

Madison said...

Hell yes, this is long overdue. Some bumblings can be expected in a new leader but Shearer has been almost a total failure. He could have overcome a slow start but it would have taken real effort, and while he may have put in some of that work it never showed.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I don't understand why you keep giving so much credit to the general Labour membership, that they wouold have supported Cunliffe. I have been a great fan of Cunliffe for many years, but he is despised by a great portion of not only the caucus but the general membership. What evidence do you have to suggest that Cunliffe would have been chosen by the Labour membership?

It is without doubt that he would have been a better leader, but I do not think either the caucus or the membership will ever elect him. Personally if the left loses another election, they'll find another leader. I'm personally really impressed by some of the newer MPs like Megan Woods and David Clark, I think they're future PM material.

Karen said...

You were right the first time, Shearer is the best choice to lead the Labour Party. He could be inspiring if his minders let him.He just needs to stop listening to people like the Paganis and go with his humanitarian instincts. And he definitely needs to front up to the media and challenge the Nats policies much more than he has been doing. Clean , green, clever and FAIR, that's what we need.

Victor said...

Well Chris

A lot of others, who should have known better, also got it wrong. And, unlike you, have not, thus far, had the grace to acknowledge error.

The mystery remains as to why so many intelligent and ostensibly well-informed people were
enraptured by the "Emperor's new clothes".

What was the magic that they saw in this shambling and maladroit persona? Why (apart from the much touted back story) was he ever considered for the top slot, let alone given it?

As a long standing migrant to this country, I'm genuinely interested in the Shearer phenomena, in that it suggests something about my chosen homeland that I just don't begin to understand and that, after 27 years, I really should understand.

Could someone please explain it to me?

Anonymous said...

At the same time as your posting, Chris, Cunliffe got a slice of the NZ Herald, with his article "Law of the land seems up for grabs to the highest bidder", which, to unfairly do a one-line abstract (you ought to read it in its entirety to do it justice), is about how this government is brazenly doing its own thing and shafting NZ along the way.

Cunliffe acknowledges that most MPs from either side of the fence want similar things for NZ, but they have different ideas on how to achieve them. He then derides this government's sell-off of NZ and its integrity, then tells people what a government SHOULD be doing.

Isn't that what Shearer (or, if ipredict is to be believed) Robertson should be getting air-time on, instead of selfishly playing musical debating-chamber chairs amongst the in-crowd?

Voters are understanding enough to know it takes a big ego to get elected as an MP, and a massive one to become a part leader. What they're looking for is someone with a credible vision and the background, guts and intellectual grunt to follow-through on more than a cycleway. Another Churchill, another Kennedy (but who knows when to duck).

My parents brought me up to vote conservative, but I quickly saw the error of always doing what you've always done in an ever-changing world. I put NZ's future before family tradition. If the power-brokers inside the Labour Party would rather put people who reflect the past, not the future up front, don't be surprised that the Green Party are making the most of their windfall.

steelykc said...

Chris I suppose you and Brian Edwards can pat yourselves on your respective backs and feel nicely smug in the way you have openly 'gone to confession' in front of us, the general public, and that somehow you have now purged yourselves of the Shearer 'mistake'.

Well guess what - there are many of us in and outside of the party who want a different style of leadership from the attack dog approach that you would have save Labour. I for one think you both have spoken too soon.
The traditional approach of either a bully boy from the unions or a beautiful orator that drips with conviction are neither required or even that admired anymore. Quite frankly I think you are wrong on all sides of your argument.

We need a more dual leadership approach, one that we should push for at conference, and one that is in the early stages of morphing together quite nicely. Shearer and Robertson make a very good team and if you and the likes of Edwards could get past your lofty, righteous protestations about how 'wrong' you were, and woe for us all, you could give them a decent chance - at least 6 months for gods sake - before you start rubbishing such a new, pragmatic and potentially dynamic team approach that so many from within and outside of caucus are eager to support.

If whatever circles you are getting your info from are so soon to bail out, then I suggest you bail out with them. Labour has no lack of good ideas, and indeed has the potential to become a major part of the next government, if it can just get on without the likes of the old brigade dragging it backwards with constant mudslinging.

Anonymous said...

An unfortunate experiment indeed

still, it could have been a Little worse
and there's no real harm done, no big name to reimburse

Labour types can take it on the jaw
remember things like Basset, and, shudder, Alick Shaw

Trades hall know their duty, will loud and loyally chant
for whoever struts before them,
be kind
And give them Grant

Victor said...


"Labour has no lack of good ideas,"

But it's led by a man who fudges ideas woefully, whilst his deputy appears to be a man less interested in ideas than in political management of a somewhat Machiavellian caste.

steelykc said...

Well, according to the latest poll, that has Labour moving up to 35%, you may need to rethink your position - once again. But next time, leave it more that 3 months eh before you LEAP into the confessional box...

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Steelykc, the first thing to say is - one poll does not a victory ensure.

The second is that if Labour wins by default, without a clear and progressive alternative to National's policies, then all we will have done is reward the careerism that is slowly but surely robbing Labour of its meaning and purpose.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I seldom find myself in disagreement with you, which is possibly in itself a concern lol. This time however, I could not disagree with you more. I think it is far too early assume David Shearer is not the right man for the job. Currently the National Party, along with their 'teapot' partner John Banks, are doing an exceptional job of appearing to have spent too much time at the local fish market, as things are decidedly 'whiffy'. Honest John and John, are looking anything but.

Cut to Mr David Shearer, is there anyone in politics at the moment who could possibly be perceived as more open and honest that Mr Shearer? I severely doubt it. Surely this is currently the best place for anyone to launch themselves onto the political landscape. I agree that at this point Mr Shearer appears somewhat hesitant, not particularly articulate and lacks a certain confidence. However, these things are by no means 'deal breakers' and many a successful politician has honed these skills and gone on to achieve great things.

I believe Mr Shearer is exactly what is needed at this particular point in time, a diamond in the rough if you like, and the criticisms are premature I believe.

Public perception if I read it correctly, is that the gloss is wearing off National, and in turn John Key as he is the National Party, just as Winston Peters is NZ First. Mr Shearer may not be dazzling the crowds like the latest celeb du jour, which considering the current climate is probably a huge advantage.

They say slow and steady wins the race. Hopefully Labour will not act prematurely and seek out a high flyer who could quite likely crash and burn, as the publics appetite for flashy is wearing as thin as Mr Banks' fading memory.

Richard said...

Well written Chris, entertaining as well. I certainly agree with your assessment of David Lange's misleadingly powerful oratory skills and David Shearer's stunning lack of it. Not too sure whether Labour's got the leadership pipeline to counter Key's negotiating and alliance building prowess. But he's showing his true colours this term, so there could be an opportunity. Keep up the excellent writing.