Let Shearer be Shearer

April 30th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

There is an episode of the West Wing called “Let Bartlett be Barlett” (S1E19).

The staff begin to realize that the Bartlet administration has been ineffective because it has been too timid to make bold decisions, focusing instead on the exigencies of politics. Finally, Leo confronts President Bartlet with his own timidity, challenging him to be himself and to take the staff “off the leash.” – in other words, he seeks to “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”. The President and his staff resolve to act boldly and “raise the level of public debate” in America.

This is what needs to do also.

I agree with the NZ Herald editorial that says:

They say Leader of the Opposition is the worst job in politics. It requires unceasing, carping criticism of everything the Government does and a relentlessly negative outlook on the country’s condition and prospects under current policies. Somehow this hapless individual is supposed to be popular too.

David Shearer, elected leader of the Party after the last election, has clearly decided this job description is not for him. Whatever he has been doing since his elevation he has not been out front on most of the issues that are making this a testing year for John Key’s Government. There is a view that he is to blame for the fact these issues have not dented National’s standing in two recent polls or lifted ’s support. The concern seems to have permeated his own office with the resignation of his chief of staff, Stuart Nash.

If the departure of Mr Nash signals a change of style for Mr Shearer, it would be a mistake. Mr Shearer is clearly not a tub-thumping politician. He seems a normal, thoughtful, cautious and fair-minded citizen. 

Those in Labour who are getting so worked up about the fact they have not gone up in the polls, despite National dealing with some unpopular issues, need to realise that beyond the beltway people are not talking over morning tea about how David Shearer did in the House. Yes, he has some way to go to be a confident and authoritative presence in the House. But he will not become Prime Minister purely by being a good attack dog in the House, and nor does he need to be. That is why you have a Deputy.

Where there is fair criticism of Shearer has been his inability, to date, to articulate what he stands for and how his beliefs are different to both Phil Goff’s and John Key’s. The Goff led Labour achieved a near 100 year low for their vote. David Shearer must avoid being tuned turned into Goff-lite.

The problem, as I understand it from a couple of Labour people, is that David Shearer does have some innovative and exciting ideas around policy, ones that break the stereotype of right vs left. But the problem is he has been unable to get them through his caucus, who remain largely wedded to their current policies.

As the Herald editorial says:

 People do not follow leaders who lack the confidence to be themselves.

The role of political leadership is more than being chairman of the board, or the caucus. Don Brash did not let Caucus decide his Orewa speech. John Key in Opposition did not have Caucus vote on his agreement with Helen Clark over the anti-smacking law compromise. That show of leadership won him huge acclaim at the time.

Likewise in Government, Helen Clark and John Key did not let Caucus determine key policies. In fact one could argue they wouldn’t let Caucus determine a bus timetable!

Shearer needs to start putting out policies and ideas which define him. I probably won’t like most of them, and that is not a bad thing. But neither is it a bad thing, if his caucus don’t like 100% of them also. What is important is that he likes them, and backs them. Leadership is about telling your caucus “these are the policies I want to lead on, back them or find yourself a new leader”. Decision making by committee of 34 is not a good option.

David Shearer is genuinely nice guy, who wants the best for New Zealand (as most, but not all, MPs do). It is incredible that only two and a bit months after Parliament has resumed this year, that some in Labour are already backsliding over their choice. You have to take a medium to long-term strategic view. What matters isn’t the polls at the moment, or how the House is going. What matters is whether or not there is a three year strategy designed to get Labour and its leader perceived as the Government in waiting, and that the right steps are being taken to implement that strategy.

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33 Responses to “Let Shearer be Shearer”

  1. Deborah (156 comments) says:

    Just so you’re aware of this, David…. The West Wing was actually fictional. So drawing political lessons from it is possibly not that useful, because really, it was mostly American script writers’ wet dreams about how they could be President too.

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  2. dime (9,396 comments) says:

    Let Shearer be Shearer – a great new war cry.

    I guess the difference is a pissed off bunch of dem congressmen and senators cant asshole the president if they arent happy.

    The worst job in politics int being leader of the opposition, its being the leader of the labour party.

    Just a bunch of snarky MP’s who have no intention of being the leader. they just want to sit back and play puppet master. they cant be voted out. they can act however badly they want without consequence.

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  3. KH (687 comments) says:

    People do not follow leaders who lack the confidence to be themselves. — Yes. I think so.
    Maybe the problem is the Labour Party, not Shearer. (Well we all knew the Labour Party was a problem previously – David Shearer is only a recent addition to the conversation.
    Shearer seems to have policy we have not heard, so I guess we need to hear it. Might help sort out the charf in his party as well.

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  4. Ed Snack (1,734 comments) says:

    I think you’re also falling the very trap you warn of, David. Key may have garnered significant acclaim for his compromise with Helen Clark over the smacking criminalisation legislation, but that was acclaim purely amongst the chatterati. Most relatively ordinary people that I know saw it as a small but significant betrayal of ordinary New Zealand. Not enough to really undermine his popularity, but part of the business as usual, where people have come to expect politicians to act in their own perceived best interests rather than those of the country as a whole. A little more of the remaining trust in politicians disappeared with that decision.

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  5. gazzmaniac (2,317 comments) says:

    John Key in Opposition did not have Caucus vote on his agreement with Helen Clark over the anti-smacking law compromise. That show of leadership won him huge acclaim at the time.

    He also pissed off a large portion of his electorate. He was lucky it wasn’t a more important issue.

    EDIT: Ed Snack beat me to it by <30 seconds!

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  6. Adolf Fiinkensein (2,791 comments) says:

    David, perhaps you should invite him to do an exclusive interview with Kiwiblog.

    Whatever its policies, Labour has absolutely no show as long as its so-called senior ranks are filled with third rate individuals whose ego and ambition far outstrip any notion of party loyalty.

    Politics is all about character, dear boy. Just ask anyone in the ALP.

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  7. twmcsw (5 comments) says:

    @Deborah

    Sorry the West Wing is extemely influential in modern politics. My Uni lecturer quotes it all the time and is a sell confessed addict. It was clearly written by people with an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the whitehouse, and is a great learning tool.

    I couldn’t agree more with the let Shearer be Shearer comment.

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  8. tom hunter (4,374 comments) says:

    While I also take the point that The West Wing was fiction, the people who wrote it – indeed it’s driving force, Aaron Sorkin – were more left-wing than the Democrat party of that time and the show was a vehicle for their ideas. So letting Bartlett be Barlett was code for Let a Thousand Brilliant Left-wing Ideas Bloom, an idea that had particular appeal in the age of the triangulating Clinton machine.

    In fact the whole show was a kind of acted-out projectile-vomiting of the Clinton approach that had dominated the 1990′s and a demonstration of what a real left-wing Democrat administration could be like: an idea that would reach its apotheosis with the election of Barackus Pompus in 2008.

    However, here in NZ, letting Shearer be Shearer might be code for some of those left-wing ideas and proposals going down the gurgler – and perhaps even being replaced by (“gasp”) some “right-wing” ideas – as witnessed by your claim that Shearer has some innovative and exciting ideas around policy, ones that break the stereotype of right vs left. Every left-winger remembers what happened the last time that particular Pandora’s box was opened and they carry the deep scars to show for it. So the answer in his caucus is not just “No!” but “Hell, No!”

    But of course, having been so adamant that theirs is the way, the truth, and the light, the other Labour party members are left with only one “problem” – David Shearer. And probably with only one “solution” too!

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  9. dubya (214 comments) says:

    “My Uni Lecturer quotes it all the time”.

    Well, that does it then!

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  10. Alan Wilkinson (1,816 comments) says:

    As I said when he was voted leader, Shearer’s biggest problem will be his own party’s venomous factions.

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  11. Pete George (22,784 comments) says:

    No surprise that “same old” Labour appears to be too entrenched to allow a Shearer led recovery. This is quite noticable when a branch speech by David Cunliffe gets promoted at sometimes staunch Labour supporters at The Standard as “Some good vision”.

    There seems to be some blinkers on around the Labour camps.

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  12. krazykiwi (9,189 comments) says:

    Alan – I agree. Shearer is trying to lead a party towards relevance, while the factions fight internally to assert their dominance. A death struggle for either the party, or for several factions. I’m running low on popcorn.

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  13. dime (9,396 comments) says:

    “John Key in Opposition did not have Caucus vote on his agreement with Helen Clark over the anti-smacking law compromise. That show of leadership won him huge acclaim at the time.”

    Yep. He made the best of a bad situation.

    Unfortunately some people would have preferred he did nothing and we were stuck with an even shittier law than the one we got.

    Ideology I guess.

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  14. philu (13,393 comments) says:

    i disagree with the call from trotter and edwards(b) to roll shearer..(they seem unable to see past the end of their noses..)

    ..but i also have concerns that the right is supporting shearer ‘cos they see him as less likely to make the bold changes required…

    ..(this is also why they are so anti-cunnliffe..’cos he is articulating that required anti-neo-lib vision..

    ..i think the right feel they will also be able to manipulate shearer to keep labour as just a national-lite..

    ..(which will mean s.f.a. change for the elites/1/%…just tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee..)

    ..whereas again cunnliffe certainly has a plan for real change…

    ..i am just hoping shearer will cleave more to that anti-neo-lib vision…

    ..and not just try to be key-lite..

    ..that cd make for the best of both worlds..

    .. a new leader..untainted by labours’ past/history..

    ..and a strong plan to end this dead-end-plan of austerity-madness..

    phillip ure@whoar.co.nz

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  15. hmmokrightitis (1,508 comments) says:

    Im lost – the opinion of a drug addled criminal matters because….

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  16. Bob R (1,336 comments) says:

    ***The West Wing was actually fictional. So drawing political lessons from it is possibly not that useful,***

    @ Deborah,

    People get political lessons from fiction all the time, “Atlas Shrugged”, “Animal Farm”, Nineteen Eighty-Four” “Catch-22″ etc.

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  17. philu (13,393 comments) says:

    or in the case of act..the mickey mouse ouvre…

    phillip ure@whoar.co.nz

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  18. flipper (3,544 comments) says:

    In the Socialist star times yesterday, guest contributor, Bruce Willis (Nat President of Federated Farmers) made the excellent point that outside of the beltway (whether it is around Auckland (Grey Lynn et al) or Wellington, no one cares about the BS red melon / labour issues being generated then promoted by the beltway media.

    Sky ? Crap.
    Banks?
    Labour’s leadership follies?
    Labour’s special interest groups?

    Who cares apart from the likes of that resident idiot philU? .

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  19. lastmanstanding (1,204 comments) says:

    Isnt it just wonderful watching the Socialist Party tearing itself to bits. All those factions fighting each other to the death. Meanwhile the ship of state that is John Key just sails onwards and upwards.

    JK Joyce and BE must be both pissing themselved silly and also thinking there by the Grace of God go we watching the Socialist Party at work kniving themselves to death.

    Betcha Shearer will be gone by Christmas. Silent T will be installed and the fighting will continue anew.

    Lubbly Jubbly

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  20. Keeping Stock (10,097 comments) says:

    @ Phil; most of the Right would be delighted if Cunliffe became the leader of the Labour Party. We’d be able to remind everyone of Cunliffe’s sacking of the democratically elected Hawke’s Bay District Health Board in 2008. You may remember that there was an agreement that the sacked board be resotred, rather than Cunliffe have to go to Court and defend the sacking at a judicial review. Others will remember Cunliffe’s speech at the Avondale markets last year when he launched into a faux Maori accent, and called John Key “the greasy little fella in the blue suit”. And there will be those who remember his “I’m running the show now Mr Ryall” posturing shortly after he took on the Health portfolio.

    David Cunliffe will turn voters off even faster than you upset commenters here at DPF’s blog. He comes across as smarmy, aloof, arrogant and patronising. He has the “born to rule” persona that so many of the Left accuse National Party MP’s of having. People will not easily warm to him.

    Perhaps that’s why David Cunliffe was so resoundingly beaten in December when he stood for the leadership.

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  21. Pete George (22,784 comments) says:

    Interesting comments on this:

    “I understand there’s another speech coming up from David on the economy and the environment.”

    “Anyway, it doesn’t matter in this context because Cunliffe just crossed the line. He is either now officially challenging Shearer or he has just betrayed the activists that have so much faith in him.”

    “Cunliffe is miles away from the path being set by the current leadership. This is Cunliffe challenging the status quo.”

    http://thestandard.org.nz/some-good-vision/

    The Standard seems to be very split on Labour leadership, with a definite Cunliffe faction and lukewarm support for Shearer.

    But for Cunliffe to start promoting his own “vision” it suggests that neither him or Shearer are pulling the strings within Labour.

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  22. philu (13,393 comments) says:

    “..He comes across as smarmy, aloof, arrogant and patronising…”

    that’s key..

    and his inaction on/over banks defines that..

    phillip ure@whoar.co.nz

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  23. Keeping Stock (10,097 comments) says:

    In your dreams Phil. Key is still the most popular PM in living memory.

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  24. graham (2,214 comments) says:

    Listening to Mike Hosking this morning, he said much the same as DPF. IE, David Shearer seems like a nice guy – not a hell-raiser – and why were Labour turning on him after only six months? Hosking also commented that Labour needs to take a medium to long-term strategic view, and look towards the next election.

    All good stuff, but part of me can’t help but wonder why I find it so hard to feel anything about Shearer. He just comes across as … meh. And “meh” doesn’t get you elected.

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  25. Dick Prebble (60 comments) says:

    I believe there was also a The West Wing episode where Bob Russell was going to be the next Democratic nominee. A much more accurate comparison.

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  26. Cunningham (811 comments) says:

    I just don’t think Labour have the patience to sit around and wait to see whether Shearer will deliver them a victory at the next election. This is compounded by the fact that Shearer has looked very average at times. I just cannot imagine him beating key in a head to head debate before the next election based on what I have seen so far. I think Key would just destory him and no amount of good policy will help when your leader gets made to look like a fool. Just look at Goff last election in the ‘show me the money’ moment. That was repeated on news shows again and again. Nothing could have saved them after that.

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  27. Pete George (22,784 comments) says:

    Another anti-meh:

    What Cunliffe has done here is define a position. This places pressure on others in Labour to consider where they stand in relation to it. At the same time, it undermines attempts to sidestep revealing a position by making non-committal sympathetic noises.

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  28. tom hunter (4,374 comments) says:

    Earlier I referred to the revulsion many American left-wingers felt about Clinton’s compromises with the GOP over things like welfare reform, and how The West Wing was one response from the arts and entertainment world.

    Of course Bill’s 1990′s mate, Tony Blair, is an even deeper hole of hatred for pulling a similar stunt in the UK. But if you want to see the problems Shearer faces you could do worse than to read The Dim Post’s piece on Cunliffe’s speech, where Dim is so enthused that he lists the entire thing. The comments are even more revealing. I especially appreciated ye old Stalinist worshiper, “Sanctuary”, describing university economics lecturer, Eric Crampton as a “crackpot”.

    It’s an incredible sight to behold: the left-wing just absolutely refuse to understand how their ideas increasingly fail to fit a modern world. Instead we get fantasies that the “neo-liberal” economic ideas have had a stranglehold on the world, especially the Western World, since the days of Reagan and Thatcher. There seems no limit to what I can only describe as an utterly bizarre inversion of reality. Apparently this neo-liberal universe includes France, Greece, Italy, Spain and the rest of the Euro Social-Democracy disaster zone: even Sweden is getting brickbats from the “true” left for dipping its toes into things like charter schools and selling off public hospitals.

    For the all now-standard venom dripped on Blair for his dealings with Murdock there seems to be no acknowledgement of the incredible increase in government spending (much of it on traditional left-wing institutions such as the NHS) under Blair, and even more so under his successor Gordon Brown. Some neo-liberal economic approach that was. For all the embarrassed laughter about Brown nowadays, I well remember the various promotions of him from left-wingers as Blair was pushed to stand-down. My favourite in this was Anita McNaught as the “UK Correspondent” for Nine to Noon several years ago, breathlessly describing how everybody was just so impressed by Gordon’s huge increases in government spending on healthcare and everything else. No neo-liberal he; this was real, traditional Labour party stuff, the reason they were there, and people could not wait for Blair to finally go so that there could be more of it.

    And now Cunliffe is appealing to the same types of voters along the same lines of appeal. And in getting Shearer dumped and then getting Labour back into power in 2014, it could well work – until the money runs out, even with all the tax increases.

    But it will still be the fault of the neo-liberal “stranglehold”.

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  29. Harriet (4,505 comments) says:

    “….Leadership is about telling your caucus “these are the policies I want to lead on, back them or find yourself a new leader….”

    Crap !

    “The leader is good, the leader is great, I surrender my will as of this date” – Homer Simpson

    Either way, conflict is what you get in parties when you don’t base policy on underlying princples. If Labour believe in nothing, then the public can only ever fall for everything – just look at the policy history of the current ALP…. and also now their polling.

    Motherhood statements like ‘fairness & equality’ don’t cut it, as they are not policies or principles but just hope – just look at O’bama, Rudd and Gillard – all doorstop and no delivery !

    Principle leads to consensus – the liberals in OZ have it, and they ALP don’t.

    Labour at least have the time to get some ‘solid as rock’ underlying priniples – and THAT, is really what leadership is all about.

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  30. Harriet (4,505 comments) says:

    As I said yesterday, the Labour leadership challenge is a publicity stunt. Shearer will ‘see off’ all challengers to make him look strong in front of a gullable and ignorant public.

    The overcredentialed Beltway paper shuffling class, who are entirely out of touch with working class kiwis and their issues, will simply go along with it – mocking the purpose of democracy yet again !

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  31. hmmokrightitis (1,508 comments) says:

    I dont bother with the standard these days, the constant negativity and stupidity had me shaking my head, and the why bother question kept popping up. But, my impression of the whole labour way of thinking is this – why people dont vote for us is a mystery, we have a RIGHT to be in power. We have dusted off a ‘new leader’, you will love him…and then they sit back with arms folded waiting for the polls to rise – and they dont.

    And then the internal blood letting follows much bleating and wailing. And for me its this perceived divine right they believe they have to rule thats at the heart of it. They cannot understand WHY people arent interested, and honestly believe that we are stupid and that one day we will realise that we are and come flocking back.

    Delusional to say the least. They hate JK with a passion, and expect us to as well. They cant say why they do, and thats the thing – they do because they do.

    So, who is stupid – you be the judge :)

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  32. flipper (3,544 comments) says:

    Politicians…. especially those on the left (labour and the red melons) are a curiously special breed that should be confined to the rubbish bins:
    Mark Twain summed them up –

    “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress (House of Repesentatives). But I repeat myself.”

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  33. IHStewart (388 comments) says:

    @ Keeping Stock, spot on and as for the best insight on this in the blogosphere Cactus Kate

    http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=19786816&postID=2967476490706329474

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