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.
If you really believe that David Shearer is the 'wolf in sheep's clothing" that you have made him out to be, then it must be very depressing for those on the political left.
However, if what you have outlined is all in the pubic domain as you suggest, then how does someone who fits your description get to become elected leader of the Labour party? Are you the only one to have connected the dots?
If he is all that you suggest, then he would make a welcome change from the timid 'conservatives' we presently have holding office. I have a deep respect for conviction politicians, who do believe that it is "more important to make a difference than to get re-elected."
If you are not making a difference in accord with your core values, then why are you in parliament in the first place? Such politicians are so rare, that I welcome their presence on either side of the house.
"...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."
It's not going to happen. Politics doesn't work that way any more. What's going to happen is years more of cuts and privatizations no matter who gets in. Labour aren't pandering to the right for ideological reasons, but because that's where the votes are, and the votes are there because most NZers are mentally defective authoritarians.
It's been decades now. How long is it going to take you to understand that democracy is a waste of time? It's just American Idol for old, ugly people.
Or search "Facebook Say No To Asset Sales"
The neoliberal agenda is the problem, as Chris points out. It is alive in the big political parties, attractive in parts even in the small ones.
The rally on Feb 13 has support from conservatives through liberal opinion to the left. Disrupting the current consensus is a beginning, but I think it also creates space for other possibilities to arise. These possibilities will not easily arise in an environment dominated by big political parties.
I don't think there'll be any actual politicians addressing the crowd in Wellington.
Another excellent article examining the Shearer enigma.
Your forecast will probably be correct; more right-wing orthodoxy is to be expected. Considering the many it has failed subsequently filling the ranks of the underclass, little or no salvation is to be gained in a Shearer victory for them.
With the problems flourishing due in part to the lack of innovation, the beneficiaries and supporters of neoliberalism should realise the risk in merely preserving the status quo.
When change ferments from the lower levels the future doesn’t bode well for them, or ultimately anyone, with the chaos that usually entails such change.
Anonymous 12:53 AM
Democracy isn’t a waste of time; but it is in need of a good overhaul.
Today, money is progressively replacing people in democracy, rendering it more a hybrid democracy/ plutocracy.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Sir Winston Churchill.
“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” – Sir Winston Churchill.
I agree that it's so much harder to sound fresh and new when articulating neo-liberal bunkum these days than it was back in the early 1990s.
But I suspect there's an additional cause for the morphing of a once incisive advocate of outsourcing armed force into the Shambling Shearer we know and wince over.
He's got older. It happens. I know from experience that I'm not the man I was when a mere stripling of 65. Moreover, some of us age more rapidly than others and Shearer certainly doesn't seem to be a particularly youthful 56 year old.
Of course, some politicians achieve maximum effectiveness at the age when others are ripe for retirement. Churchill, Adenauer and Savage all come to mind in this context. But there's absolutely no sign that poor old Shambles is one of them.
And so it remains a mystery to me as to why even Labour's Rogergnome rump ever saw Shambles as the party's last, best hope.
When was the last time you heard a politician give specifics about policy. It's pretty rare these days particularly outside an election year. Be nice if ALL these people told us exactly where they stand. Refreshing if someone actually cut through the bullshit we're contantly fed - which incidentally an insult.
Great article Chris.
Pick up the facebook link from Anon 9.28am, too.
Yours is a very different picture of David Cunliffe from that given by Phil Taylor in The Other David (NZ Herald Nov 2012.
Is what divides Cunliffe and Shearer a real left-right tension, or simply realpolitik? Is your Cunliffe simply another simulacrum.
The opaqueness of it all is so dreary.
Chris - David was in the 'fog of war' when he wrote this - he is obviously a student of Clausewitz ... (War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment).
And Shearer expressed just when he wrote paper: different purpose - different dynamics:
Today he is demonstrating his uncertainty operating in nz's geo- politics
shearer is not sure if/how every participant MP is engaged - it is not a war to them - they are buried in the fog of keeping their jobs safe .. suspect shearer could walk away & rejoice ...
He should put brooding Cunniliffe back on board ASAP -- let him be the aggressor - to replace the boring trevor mallard - who is so predicable .. & has little to offer & attract new members ...
diana and friends
I agree with your sentiment Chris. Labour has had it's day as a valid party with a unique political voice. It simply won't let go of Rogernomics.
It's time for people who truly believe in economic fairness and the environment to turn to the Green party - it has consistently shown it is a progressive alternative to the parties on the political right (Labour included).
What you demonstrate here (again) is the bankruptcy of the Labour Party.
So, I ask myself, on what basis does it hold its place in Parliament as the main opposition? Our memory of what our hopes once were; it's ability to cling on to a few shreds of progressive social policy; and the fact of it being the lesser of two evils.
Yet those memories and other perceptions are simply self-deception, or wishful thinking if you like. How can anyone who thinks of themselves as a social democrat seriously vote for a party which has consistently run a neoliberal economic policy agenda for 28 years?
Well I suspect that the really cool progressives were told at university that we live in post-ideological times, that grand ideas like "social democracy" or even "socialism" are dead. So all they can do is "manage" from moment to moment.
But it's a shame no-one told the New Right that ideology was dead because we're rapidly heading for their particularly ideological version of society - minimal social security, ever-widening inequality, for-profit education, a "flexible", insecure and unprotected workforce, and so on. And there really seems to be very little standing in their way.
At this moment, Labour is just a hindrance, a fake opposition which really is no opposition at all.
It is time for us to wake up, recognise the act of flogging a dead horse when we see it, and call the knacker's yard.
Maybe it's not primarily about ideology but about competence.
But maybe competence in articulating and synthesising ideas and priorities morphs inevitably into an ideological position.
Certainly, at a time such as this, when the moth-eaten nostrums of neo-liberalism have lost all plausibility, a competent social democratic politician, with a concern for policy, might well be feeling his or her way leftwards.
That would explain why Cunliffe seems more left-wing today than a few years ago. The question remains as to why this is not also true of Shearer and his allies.
Not all of them lack competence. So I can only assume that patch protectionism and the dear old Kiwi tall poppy syndrome count for more with them than the long term welfare of the nation.
I write, I should add, not as a socialist but as a very moderate social democrat, who nevertheless recognises that a time of global economic crisis creates both new challenges and new opportunities.
Methinks that February 2013 is gong to decide the future of the Labour Party and (probably) condemn us to a decade of National Party rule (shudder). Shearer is merely the tip of an about to capsize iceberg, (icebergs actually do that.)
Muldoon actually got voted out.
The Berlin Wall actually came down.
Rogernomics actually happened.
The Labour Party caucus actually comes into contact with its voters wishes? Hmmmmmm...
The growth of the Greens will be the closest thing to political optimism for the short term. The elite will play on pre-seeded populism and generate financial hysteria to discredit Green politics. Then back to decline and nationalist propaganda with [Labour / National].
People have tired of parliamentary politics, but they aren't yet genuinely sickened by it.
You don't represent workers anymore than Keith Locke represented "greens" Chris Trotter.
What we need to do is smoke you all out so we know what you stand for; the workforce have a right to correct labelling on the entity that claims to represent them. Many of you would agree (apparently)with professor Spoonley that diversity is "absolutely essential" for New Zealand's economic well being and that population growth is necessary for economic well being and moral ('leftists of an internationalist tradition have always favoured globalization and getting rid of national borders and barriers to migration.")?
Thanks for this revealing and insightful article about Shearer. I think it's true that we have to be "genuinely sickened" by not only parliamentary politics but by all manner of theory in all areas including the arts and in our notions about the supremacy of reason and science.
Spengler noted years ago that democracy was no more than the political tool of money which no doubt earned him the hatred of the ideological left.
I think we are duped by all manner of sorcery including the play acting of present political stance. In a book also from another era called "Life Against Death" the American sociologist Norman O. Brown talks about the psychoanalytical meaning of history referencing Freud and the German mystic Jacob Boehme whose ideas influenced German philosophy. Boehme bears the stamp of influence from alchemy and Hermetisicm.
This may make some of us squirm but we are at an impasse at which old landmarks are disintegrating. Any political attempts from now on must also promote alternative understanding of the human condition or be consigned to the dustbin of history.
I do not agree with your analysis.
Shearer is simply a competent apparatchik who has been parachuted in because he "is not Cunliffe" and will not rock the sinecures of some present Labour caucus members.
Unfortunately he has neither a clear view of a future more socially sustainable NZ nor the ability to lead us there.
Which probably suits some in the hierarchy who are playing a long game for power, fine.
Chris - your fifth-columnism for the NZ First Party has to stop...
Cunliffe has never been a leftie! He's the only choice you have left because you don't like Shearer? Cunliffe hasn't done anything with the left until 12-18 months ago when you and a few others started wheeling him out at a few union bashes and he got a luke-warm reception at most because the working class had never heard of him??Is it because he's not an intellectual like you Chris? I remember some years ago when uncle Helen was about you wouldn't be able to get any mileage out of writing rubbish like this ... I'm guessing this is all this is, worming you're way back into the party hierarchy of sorts.
Look to be honest Labour might just as well work closely with the Greens because Russell Norman is the only one with the ability to think on his feet and provide some sound long term propositions for the way forward for the country. There is no one else at this crucial time.
Utter tosh, mate. I haven't "wheeled" David Cunliffe anywhere.
I went to hear him speak at Blockhouse Bay and for the first time EVER heard a senior Labour politician repudiate neoliberalism.
That was good enough for me.
When Shearer and his mates have done the same let me know and I'll have a think about changing my position.
As for Cunliffe not being an intellectual - Jeez! The guy won a scholarship to Harvard FFS!
And believe me, publicly attacking the NZLP leadership is NOT the way to "worm" your way back into the party hierarchy's favour - quite the reverse in fact!
If I were you I'd get a little bit better informed before again launching myself into print .
It is f------ depressing if you are a voter with a social leaning who to vote for,for there are only two main players in the game,the other players, are for better or worse, just sub branches of either.
Labour has been polling in the low 30s for some time now as the preference to governance and it has to be said,like it or not, their present leader along with their past lack lustre year in the house, is and has done them no favour.
What is needed for Labour is a platform based on strong unflinching social policy that benefits all N.Z employed or not, not more of or lesser austere neo liberal policy that benefits those better than the lesser.
Labour needs a strong voice, with mongrel and a fluent grasp of the issues, a voice that can debate harass and negate the voices and arguments of Key,Joyce and English.And for me that is Cunliffe.
David Cunliffe left wing? Don't make me laugh! The Labour Party isn't left wing, and hasn't been since Roger Douglas hijacked it. More's the pity, since NZ really needs a solid left-wing party that is unashamedly for the workers and ordinary people. Sadly, however, too many people have succumbed to the right-wing, neo-liberal, anti everyone but the rich and wannabe rich indoctrination that has been rampant since the 1980s.
Great discussion prompted by a fascinating well thought article, with the exception of the occasional personal attacks in some comments.
I often think to myself that maybe ideology on all sides puts an idea ahead of people or what ever event comes by the way of happenstance.
Flexibility and present mindedness seem to be drifting away.
Either way how exciting to see parties slowly growing or dying. If a remember correctly when a party from the left dies away and is replaced by a new left the same thing happens to the right a few years down the track.
New ideas shall abound.
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