Opening moves

This morning David Shearer won the Labour leadership, as many expected and as I had hoped he would. More substantive analysis will follow, but I want to remark on two things. First, via Mike Smith at The Standard:

He’s a listener and an unifier – the best sort of leader. When both David’s were asked the question in Wesley Church, “What is charisma”, David Shearer’s answer was to quote Drew Westen’s “The Political Brain” about the importance of connecting emotionally, and to say that the first thing he would do was to get out and listen to people all around New Zealand. I was reminded of Lao Tsu’s famous saying:

Go to the People. Live among them, Love them, Learn from them. Start from where they are, Work with them, Build on what they have. But with the best leaders, When the task is accomplished, The work completed, The people all remark: We have done it ourselves.

As a non-member I was not in attendance at that meeting, and I was not aware of this detail, but it should be clear to anyone who has read me over the last few years that this gives me great hope. One of my chief complaints about the Labour leadership and its activist community has been its boneheaded obsession with hard facts and rational policy detail. To the extent that Shearer can moderate that he has potential to breathe new life into the movement.

The second is Shearer’s first public action as leader: declaring that the ministerial forum on poverty announced as part of the māori party’s confidence and supply agreement should include leaders of other political parties. Video from

This is a good move for three reasons: first because it gives Labour an opportunity to be at the centre of a major policy initiative, rather than on the outside; second because it gives Shearer an opportunity to use his much-hyped skills in this field; and third because it should add some heft to a committee which otherwise would likely have been dominated by Bill English channelling advice from Treasury. It doesn’t take a terrible cynic to see that the committee was intended as a sop to Tariana — another symbolic bauble with nothing behind it. Shearer’s presence, and possibly that of other leaders, would make it a much more meaningful concern, which is probably why it won’t happen. But nevertheless, it sends a crucial signal: poverty is bigger than partisan politics. National would be foolish to ignore it.

The job’s not even started yet; there’s much to do and much ground to gain, the bones of which have been sketched out in two epochal posts by Jordan Carter, here and here. Other important questions, like whether David Cunliffe’s abilities will be adequately used, remain — but I am very encouraged by what I have seen.


11 thoughts on “Opening moves

  1. What I’ve seen and heard of Shearer since the decision was made has encouraged me a lot too. He really could make a difference, if his party gives him enough support.

  2. If the Poverty Commission does become a whole of the nation concern Key will have upped ante and diminished Shearer’s opening gambit by declaring himself a person leading a government with real social conscience . . . if he doesn’t he will confirm the absence of conscience which his government is about to escalate in this second term. Either way Shearer is on the right track – it was a wise move on his part and I hope he sustains this kaupapa and calls National out at every turn they ignore this most important issue for all of Aotearoa New Zealand. Overblown bank balances will never alleviate the impact of child poverty and the downstream effects of that and the many other social offenses perpetrated by this National government. This current government will not be remembered with respect, nor will the people who supported them.

  3. Good point regarding the Poverty Commission. It is a useful initiative and one that Shearer was right to support. It’s too important an issue to be turned into a political football. Key should be congratulated on establishing it – with Turia. Shearer should be congratulated on supporting it.

  4. ‘…This is a good move for three reasons…”

    And a fourth: If that nice man Mr. Key says no to such a mum and apple suggestion from a man clearly on a mission to actually do something about politics, he cedes a fair whack of moral authority to Shearer in one fell swoop. If that nice man Mr. Key says yes, he gives the same sort of legitimacy to Shearer that he got when he brokered the smacking legislation deal.

    It is the sort of smart politics I like.

  5. ‘…This is a good move for three reasons…”

    And a fourth: If that nice man Mr. Key says no to such a mum and apple pie suggestion from a man clearly on a mission to actually do something about poverty, he cedes a fair whack of the moral high ground to Shearer in one fell swoop. If that nice man Mr. Key says yes, he gifts the same sort of political gravitas to Shearer that he got when he brokered the smacking legislation deal with Helen Clark.

    It is the sort of smart politics I like.

  6. Sanc, I think you are overestimating exactly to what degree Shearer is “clearly on a mission” – that’s the Labour view.

    Having said that I think Key would happily trade popularity for room to maneuver politically. Having Labour sniping at him from the Commission would be a bigger headache than any popularity loss he would weather from refusing. He’ll try to find some way to spin it and even if it isn’t a successful spin it will be forgotten by 2014.

  7. Fifth and sixth: it publicises the very existence of the latest MP sop-bauble (thus far largely submerged under the leadership battle); and the glaring inconsistency of a government simultaneously pushing concern for poverty and “welfare reform”.

    Labour on the front foot for once. As you say Lew, extremely encouraging.

  8. John Key eh – I’m almost convinced that he really is a cardboard cutout waving/smiling thing: requiring confidence and supply to participate in his Poverty Commission! He must have misunderstood: Shearer was talking about “children and poverty”: social non-negotiables not sop bauble!

    There’s a cartoon in this: a smiling waving cardboard John Key at the sideline – hanging out in the hood with overstuffed cronies swapping bags of loot over who will win sop bauble: the hard faced hard talking ministerial girls wacking National policies over the confidence and supply net or the hungry children and their families forced into playing that game to survive? Shearer and anyone else refusing to play handing out food parcels on the other sideline . . . A 2011 – 2014 banner overhead highlighting the odds: The policies or the casualties? “25 and counting to the hard faced girls 0 to the children and their families”.

    A genuine Poverty Commission may be forgotten in the next three years of National’s agenda – but the fact of “children and poverty” and those effects can’t be swept aside no matter how much Key smiles and waves to sustain confidence and supply. Child poverty and its effects are significant:- Shearer needs to hold this issue central alongside the outrage at the ongoing erosion of the other rights and entitlements NZers have also come to expect as normal life. Key will have to put compassion and genuine kaha into these issues lest he fulfills the cardboard cutout image – in fact he’s almost there.

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