What Lies Beneath? The most plausible explanation for David Shearer's incoherence as a political leader is that he is masking his true - neoliberal - beliefs. The right-wing character of his political and media support only reinforces this disturbing conclusion.
READ A FEW PARAGRAPHS of David Shearer’s Foreign Affairs article “Outsourcing
War” aloud, then ask yourself this question: “How could the man who currently
leads the New Zealand Labour Party possibly have written that?”
I’d only been reading the article for a few minutes when I
felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise in alarm. I put the journal down and
took a deep breath. Could the article’s author really be the same man I’d
shared a few beers with in a Kingsland pub earlier in the year? Whoever had
written that article possessed a flair for clear and compelling language and a solid
grasp of world history. Most of all, the author of “Outsourcing War” was a
skilled advocate who could, and was, making a strong case for the use of
The man I’d been drinking with in that Kingsland pub did not
appear to possess any of those talents. He came across as a typical,
inarticulate Kiwi bloke for whom clear and compelling English would always be a
second language. His grasp of the history of his own party (let alone the wider
world) was weak; his powers of persuasion negligible.
Most of us will readily identify the man in the Kingsland
pub as David Shearer. The questions only begin to pile up when we try to match
New Zealand’s inarticulate and essentially unpersuasive Leader of the
Opposition with the writer who’d successfully tackled what was, in 1998, one of
the most controversial propositions in international relations: That private security
contractors had a better chance of ending low intensity conflicts than the
regular military forces of nation states.
Now it is true that some people can write a great deal more
persuasively than they can speak. The late Bruce Jesson was a poor orator but
an outstanding writer. No matter how badly he mumbled it from the lectern his political
analysis was formidable. What, then, prevents Shearer’s speeches (even his well-rehearsed
and teleprompted address to the Labour Party Conference) achieving the power of
What has become of the audacity and passion of the
international aid administrator who penned that extraordinary article? The
person who wrote “Outsourcing War” was a policy innovator; a seeker after
radical solutions; an iconoclast willing to take a sledgehammer to prevailing
orthodoxies. More than this, he was someone who meticulously marshalled his
evidence and then buttressed it with rigorous political and economic analysis.
But very little of this radicalism and even less of the
rigorous analysis has been evident in David Shearer’s parliamentary career.
Indeed, it is hard to recall a more docile back-bencher. As Leader of the
Opposition, however, Shearer has not been able to avoid giving the New Zealand
public at least an introductory glimpse of the sort of politics he admires. Hence
the Esko Aho speech of 15 March 2012, in which he drew New Zealanders attention
to the controversial career of the former Finnish prime minister.
The former Finnish Prime Minister, Esko Aho, largely
untested, came into office in 1991. He was almost immediately faced with a
banking crisis. Jobs were disappearing. Its stock market was tanking. Its
future was hugely doubtful. Aho’s message to the Finnish people was blunt and
honest: They had big problems. No-one else was going to fix them.
For New Zealanders,
meeting big challenges with big solutions is a familiar political meme. And those
of us who lived through it tend to have pretty strong views on what political
journalist, Colin James, described as the “Big Change” of David Lange’s fourth
Labour government. Shearer, however, has maintained a dogged silence on the
economic transformations of the mid-1980s. His admiration of Aho suggests that
this reticence regarding Rogernomics is because, back in the 80s, David Shearer
was a fan of Roger Douglas – not a foe.
His celebration of
the Finnish PMs career is, in this context, highly significant. Aho, like
Douglas, conforms in nearly every respect to what the political scientist,
Geoffrey Debnam, calls a “policy aggressor”.
Policy Aggressor Par Excellance: Roger Douglas realised that the risks of introducing radical change had, by the mid-1980s, become less than those associated with attempting to maintain a failing system.
the ranks of a disciplined party, the policy aggressor is “prepared to act
decisively and is strategically located to have a significant impact on public
policy.” In Aho’s case the opportunity for an aggressive restructuring of the
Finnish economy came with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union – Finland’s
largest trading partner. At the cost of severe domestic dislocation, and against
the wishes of his own party and its rural support-base, Aho led Finland into
the European Union.
himself, noted in his speech:
Aho made bold decisions. He was, I need to say, voted out
at the next election. He thought it was more important to make a difference
than to get re-elected. Though our prescription might differ, we could all take
a lesson from that.
Debnam, “only those least likely to be rewarded under normal party conditions
will risk the possibility of party collapse. It is, thus, extremists who are
given a tactical advantage because these are the people who are least likely to
pay the cost of conflict.” This is a pretty accurate description of Douglas who
was only prevented from abandoning the Labour Party by Lange’s promise to make
him Finance Minister.
In his 1990 paper “Adversary Politics in New Zealand: Climate of
Stress and Policy Aggressors” published in The Journal of Commonwealth and
Comparative Politics (Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, March 1990) Debnam sets forth the
preconditions for successful policy aggression.
The process begins
when a lengthy period of economic buoyancy comes to a close in conditions of
significant economic dislocation, initiating what the pioneering political
scientist, Samuel Finer, dubbed a “climate of stress”. Initially, political
parties respond to the developing crisis by applying traditional formulae. But,
as recourse to tried and true methods of restoring economic stability bring
ever-diminishing returns, the electorate increasingly moves towards new and untried
ideologies and/or parties. The resulting political instability only intensifies
writes Debnam, “one party will decide that the risks associated with advocating
radical change are less than those in maintaining a failing system. A distinctive
image will be pursued via ideological or visionary appeals. If that is
successful, a new stability may be achieved around a new set of values that
will form the basis of a new consensus.”
Debnam was, of
course, describing the sequence of political events which led up to the
unleashing of “Rogernomics” in the mid-1980s. It is, however, possible to
discern in the 2008-09 collapse of global prosperity amidst multiple and linked
financial crises the initiation of a new climate of stress leading inevitably
to yet another period of radical political, economic and social change.
clearly sees himself as New Zealand’s next big policy aggressor: the
“anti-politician” who considers it more important to make a difference than to
get re-elected. In this respect, at least, the current Labour leader and the
author of “Outsourcing War” evince an unmistakeable congruence of character.
Why then is Shearer so woefully tongue-tied when it comes to
making the necessary “ideological or visionary appeal”. Why don’t his speeches
resonate with the boldness and iconoclasm of “Outsourcing War”?
The only sensible answer is: “Because his ‘solutions’ to the
crisis are merely crude reiterations of the same tried and true methods which,
in the hands of the incumbent government, have already demonstrably failed to
bring the crisis to an end.”
Introducing the efficiencies of the marketplace to the
business of international peace-making undoubtedly had a radical ring to it in
the mid-1990s, but in 2013 it just sounds like more of the same old market
madness. There is, moreover, a world of difference between penning articles for
the International Institute for Strategic Studies and drafting a party
manifesto. Were Shearer to openly declare his intention of becoming a “hands
on” neoliberal policy aggressor, eager to deploy all the powers of the state to
bulldoze new pathways for advancing market power, the Labour Party membership
would rise up in angry revolt. Small wonder, then, that Shearer stumbles and mumbles:
all of his mental energy is devoted to masking rather than revealing his true
Ideological mummery is also the key distinguishing feature
of Shearer’s principal backers in the Labour Caucus. Phil Goff, Annette King
and Trevor Mallard all dipped their paper cups into the neoliberal Kool-Aid in
the 80s and none of them have ever publicly recanted (let alone repented) their
supporting roles in Roger Douglas’s Economic Salvation Show. They no longer
defend (at least not publicly) Rogernomics’ legacy, but behind their hands they
dismiss its critics as “paleosocialists” who simply don’t understand how the
What all of them fail to grasp, however, is that the current
climate of stress is being generated by the failure
of neoliberal ideology (just as the climate of stress of the late-1970s and
early-80s was caused by the failure of Keynesianism). To talk about a neoliberal policy aggressor in 2013 is,
therefore, oxymoronic. The next genuine
policy aggressor will be a politician possessing both the courage and the
imagination to go beyond the maintenance of a discredited orthodoxy – someone
willing to forge a new political, economic and social consensus.
Policy Aggression From The Left: David Cunliffe is seen by many people inside and outside of the Labour Party as the politican best placed to forge a new political, economic and social consensus.
That David Cunliffe is seen by many both inside and outside
the Labour Party as the politician most capable of forging such a consensus largely
explains the extreme viciousness of his recent treatment. That left-wing
policy aggressors are greeted with much more hostility than their right-wing
counterparts is, however, to be expected. The latter’s intention is to shore up
the defences of capitalism, while the former hopes to rescue and empower its
victims. The arbiters of political acceptability in the business community, the
state bureaucracy and the corporate news media will thus move decisively to
forestall even the slightest hint of policy aggression from the Left.
Hence the near unanimous hatred directed at Cunliffe by the
mouthpieces of the neoliberal establishment. Fran O’Sullivan, Jane Clifton and
Matthew Hooton have gone to extraordinary lengths to besmirch Cunliffe’s
character and ridicule his ideas. In a pincer movement with Shearer’s caucus allies
they have attempted to cast the Member for New Lynn as a sly, egomaniacal (if
ultimately inept) Cassius, plotting constantly to bring down Labour’s sensible
At least the motives of these Shearer supporters are clear.
Should the National Party be voted out of office, they are now reasonably
confident that his replacement will not only leave the neoliberal settlement
intact, but that he may also, with Esko Aho’s example set firmly before him, seek
to extend it into the spheres of welfare, health, housing and education. It
will not have escaped their attention that Labour’s “Affordable Housing Plan”
is really just a glorified PPP on behalf of the professional middle-class.
Much harder to fathom is the self-defeating hostility of
Labour MPs who were, until last year’s party conference, considered to be on
the left of the caucus. One might have thought that Phil Twyford, Clare Curran,
Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little would have welcomed the opportunity to travel
in the slip-stream of an ambitious left-wing policy aggressor. After all, the
best chance a left-wing Labour MP has of “making a difference” is surely when
the massive tensions built up under a climate of stress are suddenly released
in a torrent of radical reform.
But the scope for far-reaching change in a government
dominated by Shearer and his neoliberal allies will only be extended to the
Right. That being the case, the prognosis for those who entered Parliament with
honest left-wing intentions is grim. Promotion to Cabinet will depend not only
on making ritual obeisance to Shearer and his clique, but also, following the
tragic precedent of the Rogernomics Era, on abandoning their former social-democratic
ideals. Such self-inflicted injuries to the soul do not heal quickly.
That so many people who consider themselves left-wingers
cannot see where a Shearer-led Labour Party will take New Zealand is baffling. “Outsourcing
War”, alone, should warn them just how far to the right Shearer is content to
position himself when his behaviour is not constrained by the role of Labour’s
leader. His hero-worship of Esko Aho; the quips about beneficiaries and
teachers; his rejection of the Left/Right political divide; the half-hearted
support he offered to the Maritime Union during the Ports of Auckland dispute:
all of these signs point in one direction only. And yet, even the trade unions
continue to back what they obviously (and cynically?) believe to be the winning team. It is only
after the votes have been counted, and David Shearer’s performance-hindering disguises
are triumphantly cast aside, that they will realise, exactly, what they have “won”.
To paraphrase Murray Ball’s superb quip about the backers of
the old FPP electoral system: If you want a good reason for opposing David
Shearer – just take a look at the people supporting him.
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