Hard News by Russell Brown


The Vision Thing

David Shearer's coming-out address today wasn't a classic. It wasn't, as some people are already insisting, a "great" speech. It was a decent speech -- both for what it does contain and what it doesn't.

If it represents the political branding Labour will develop between now and the 2014 general election, then it could certainly have been worse. Recall, if you will, Phil Goff's Nationhood speech in 2009, a hapless piece of dog-whistling that saw Goff obliged to spend the next few weeks insisting that his caucus was actually behind him on its tone and content. It was dead and buried by the time Goff contested an election as party leader.

Shearer's speech also did not contain -- as certain of my gloomier friends have been confidently predicting -- a fresh stanza of dog-whistling about welfare. That would have been wrong not only in the sense that attempting to trade on middle-class resentment of the poor is instrinsically wrong, but because it would have simply been an attempt to echo the messaging of John Key's National Party.

As Scott Yorke notes, "the most powerful aspect of Shearer’s speech was that it didn’t mention John Key or National once."

Given that its core theme is education, Shearer and his advisors might have been tempted to make hay with Key's bizarre musings on student loans this week. They may have considered contrasting Key's idle cynicism with their own professed stance of promoting the right policies for the country -- we are assured that capital gain tax is here to stay on Labour's policy slate -- rather than the ones that play well with focus groups. Instead, they wisely left their audience to join the dots.

On the other hand: the 1990s called and it wants its vague, aspirational cliches back.

Shearer wants "the best educational achievement in the world." Well, yeah, who doesn't?

He says that "I won't be satisfied until every child in New Zealand is getting an excellent education," and "Every child should get the opportunity to be taught by great teachers, in great schools, no matter who they are, or where they live," which is a grand way of restating the tenets of the Education Act.

But you don't get there just by hailing education as an economic elixir. It's also a human rights issue. We'll have to wait to see what Labour has to offer on the growing disaster that is special education. Shearer, creditably, acknowledges that a key cause of educational failure is the socio-economic status of the homes and communities around schools. But we'll have to wait to see what solutions he and his party might offer there.

Anyone hoping for a declaration of class war won't have found it in this speech. But Shearer does refer to the social contract, and my gut feeling is that that's a concept whose appeal will grow over the next three or four years. He may wish to add "equality of opportunity" and "we're all in this together" as he goes along.

I had no problem with Shearer waiting three months -- spread over a period where we were either on holiday or thinking about being on holiday -- to give a positioning speech. I'm prepared to accept a lack of policy detail, especially given that there is one clear policy commitment on the retention of the CGT.

But this is a speech of easy things to say, albeit largely the right things. Shearer and his party have plenty of work to do on the much harder job of giving substance to those things through policy. I suspect doing so will require him to make peace with David Cunliffe. I sat in on a private discussion of the ideas in this speech at this year's Kiwi Foo Camp. It was Shearer who ordained the discussion, but Cunliffe who demonstrated a grasp of policy and a striking articulacy in talking about it (along, it must be said, with a manner that might confirm to your nana that he's a bit bloody smug with it).

The advantage of nearly a decade in Opposition in the 1990s was that it gave Labour time to stack up detailed policy, grounded in evidence. That served Helen Clark's party well in government, and would offer a clear and communicable point of difference to a Key government that, even to its friends, increasingly seems to make it up as it goes along. The challenge for David Shearer's party will be to demonstrate that it has the discipline, poitical instinct and intellectual horsepower to to do the same in three, rather than six years.

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