Praising Shearer’s freshness and dismissing his lack of experience in the bear pit of the Debating Chamber as irrelevant has almost become the norm in comparing him with Cunliffe. I was on that side of the argument myself when Shearer first threw his hat in the ring. But I’ve changed my mind.
Shearer has had nearly three years to demonstrate his skill as a debater and about a fortnight to provide some evidence of competence in handling the media. He has done neither. His television appearances have bordered on the embarrassing. He lacks fluency and fails to project confidence or authority. Watching him makes you feel nervous and uncomfortable – a fatal flaw.
My problem is that I just can’t imagine him on his feet in the House footing it with the Prime Minister or any of his hugely experienced lieutenants. And a Leader of the Opposition must have a mastery not just of his own portfolios but of every portfolio. Clark had just such a mastery, but it was the product of 18 years experience in the Debating Chamber before she became Prime Minister.
I think Brian makes some good points, but I would point out the next election is in three years times, not three months time. Shearer’s decision to stand for the leadership is a recent one, so he hasn’t done the stuff aspiring leaders normally do such as media training and debating. He will never be a Michael Cullen in the House, but Michael would have never been elected PM.
And then there’s Cunliffe. We’re told there’s a group in the Labour caucus whose ABC mantra is ‘anyone but Cunliffe’. It’s hard to imagine a more childish or stupid approach. Your job, ladies and gentlemen, is to choose someone who can win the next election, not someone who makes you feel warm and fuzzy. And when you’re making that choice you might like to consider this fact: above almost everything else, Kiwis like leaders who project strength. Kirk, Muldoon, Clark are prime examples. None of them was particularly ‘nice’. Rowling, Lange and Goff were ‘nice’. QED.
Cunliffe may or may not be nice, but he is hugely experienced, has an in-depth understanding of policy, conveys confidence and authority, handles the media superbly and can make mincemeat of anyone on the other side of the House. His ambition should be seen as an advantage not a disadvantage.
My instinct is that the Labour Party is about to make a huge mistake. Their logic, I suspect, is that they must replace an unpopular leader with a popular leader. But it is shallow thinking. What the next Leader of the Opposition must be able to do is best and bring down John Key. That really isn’t a job for ‘a nice guy’.
I am definitely not an ABC person, but of course I am not a member of the Labour caucus. I have considerable respect for David Cunliffe, having worked with him on some of the telco reforms. And on a personal level I’ve never seen the stuff that some people go on about. Yes David has ambition, but what MP doesn’t? Ambition is not a bad thing, if there is talent to back it up, and Cunliffe has that.
On balance I think Shearer has a greater chance of leading Labour to victory, for reasons I have written about previously. But I will say that Shearer is a somewhat risker option. There is greater potential to wins over the hearts and minds of New Zealanders and get Labour’s party vote back into the mid 30s or highers. But there is also a greater risk that Shearer just can’t hack it, and Labour stays weak or gets weaker.
However Labour has dire problems being in the mid 20s. If Labour had got say 30%+, then you might go for the safer option of Cunliffe to lift you that few per cent more. But to win enough party vote to form Government in 2014 from 27% in 2011, you need to take some risks. Otherwise the best you can hope for is a Labour/Green/Maori/Mana Government propped up by NZ First. Sure that will get you into Government, but it won’t be a very good one.
As I have said previously, both contenders should do better for Labour than Phil Goff. Labour are fortunate to have a healthy and competitive choice between two good options rather than choosing the least worst candidate.