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 private armies.
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 “Outsourcing War”?
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.
Well-placed within 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.
As Shearer, 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.
According to 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 the crisis.
“Eventually”, 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.
David Shearer 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 intentions.
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 world works.
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 Caesar.
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.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.