Speaker by Various Artists


David Shearer: The one that went away

by Simon Wilson

David Shearer, he’s not your usual danger junkie. You’d get Colin Firth to play him, on a good day, or maybe Steve Carroll. Just not Bruce Willis. And yet it turns out Hollywood isn’t like life after all: Shearer has an appetite for risk that outshines us all, and it hasn’t turned him into a screwed-up hunk of fury.

He’s off to broker peace in South Sudan, a war zone Murray McCully says is the most dangerous place in the world. Okay, so he’s not literally going to ride in there on the back of a Hilux with magazine belts crossed over his chest, but there’s no getting away from it: his personal safety, for some of the time at least, will be at the mercy of men who do get around like that.

What does it say about our political system that a man the world turns to for some of its most difficult assignments doesn’t have the skills to prosper in the New Zealand Parliament? Is that on us? On our political system? On the Labour Party? Is it on him?

Actually, staying with movie stars, it’s tempting to think of Shearer not as Firth (way too buttoned up) or Willis, but as Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. Confused about the true nature of the world he finds himself in but determined to help. Determined, moreover, that his own decency will save the day. And yet, fatally, besotted with something he doesn’t understand.

Having said that, I also want to say that David Shearer is one of my favourite politicians and I think we will miss him terribly.

It was the Labour Party, inspector, wot did him in. Clubbed him to death with candlesticks in the lobby. I was at his last party conference as leader, in 2012, an extraordinary occasion at Auckland’s most ghastly venue, the Ellerslie Racecourse.

On the Saturday they changed the rules so caucus would no longer control who was leader. It was a direct attack on Shearer. Sunday was for the leader’s speech, which everyone expected he would deliver so incompetently it would precipitate his end.

As Shearer took the stage David Cunliffe, the leader-in-waiting, sat in the front row and shot laser-beam death stares at him. Cunliffe’s henchmen in the unions strutted the aisles and conspired in the corners, feverishly excited, like boys who’d stolen all the lollies at a birthday party.

Shearer confounded them all. He was small-scale personal and world-stage inspirational. He spoke clearly and with passion. He announced KiwiBuild, a plan to build 100,000 new homes, still one of the best stake-in-the-ground social-democratic policies announced by any political party in this country in this century. I wrote at the time:

“He gets lots of cheers. The first really big one comes when he talks about a living wage, and the next, even bigger, when he talks about schools… Then he’s on to Christchurch, [and] delegates are whooping and hollering again and some are on their feet.”

He was magnificent. More than that, he answered the critics in all the ways that mattered. Some thought him too self-effacing, but in that speech he showed them he could be bold and outgoing. Some thought him unable to connect, but there he was soaking up the love.

Some thought he was an interloper, a closet Tory who lacked the true heart of a Labourite. But the policy platform he announced that day was deeply focused on working-class aspirations and as true a declaration of social-democratic values as you would ever expect from a Labour leader. Shearer was the real deal.

Whatever. They couldn’t roll him then but he was gone within the year. Bludgeoned out of the job by a brutal combination of three things: relentless leftist antagonism, particularly from some in the unions; the hubris and treacherous ambition of David Cunliffe; and Shearer’s own political failings.

Because, yes, the last is inescapably true. The leader who made that speech in late 2012 sounded like a man capable of neutralising his opponents and uniting the party, taking the fight to John Key and the National-led government, positioning himself as the leader of a genuinely viable government-in-waiting. But he wasn’t that man.

In 2013 things got worse all over again. His supporters watched in steadily growing dismay while he stumbled from one debate and media interview to the next, unable to rally the crowds or reassure the public. The party’s poll ratings stayed poor – sure, not as poor as they have been in his wake, but no one then was to know that.

In particular, for the life of him, David Shearer could not do a good interview. And the reason for that cuts to the heart of his ability as leader. He did not have a political brain.

Politicians reduce the world to black and white: this is the right thing to do and that is wrong. The bad ones believe everything is simple, which makes them dogmatic. They’re the dangerous ones. The good ones see the complexity and study it carefully. But they still reduce the issue because they have to make a decision – we’ll do this and not that – and they have to make that decision communicable in its simplicity.

Shearer found all that very hard and he knew it. He told me once, “Someone says something and straight away, you know, I’ve got a hundred thoughts in my head about it.” He valued his ability to see nuance. He believed that because none of us ever truly knows we are right, it is sensible and also virtuous to value doubt.

He had – has – so many admirable traits as a human being. But when the interviewer (and the rest of us watching) wants to know what the politician thinks, without beating around the bush, those traits can get in the way. If you can’t say, “We need more police,” because combatting crime isn’t that simple, you’re going to find it hard to make people vote for you. We know, or sense, that the politician who cannot make up their mind is also dangerous.

And so they bashed him out of the job. Yes I know, he resigned of his own accord, but that’s a technicality. He was dumped.

Yet David Shearer also knew – life as an aid worker in war zones will do this to you, I imagine – that nothing is as hard to achieve as most people think, that if you stop caring and stop trying to combat suffering, you might as well stop altogether.

That complexity he saw all around him, and the hesitation it produced, also spoke of a mind determined to rise up and do the job. He got mired in the compromising details and it frustrated him enormously. You’ve snagged me again, he seemed to say, when surely the big goal in front of us is clear enough? 

Hopeless romantic? He was – I don’t know this but I do believe it – a person who was only in politics to do good. Sure, they all say that, and for most of them it’s true to a degree. But along the way most politicians get waylaid. Managing, making do, staying alive, it consumes them.

Was Shearer the guy who was not going to be consumed? Who kept his purpose clear? We don’t know. He laid out a great vision in that speech of 2012, but it’s what you do not what you say that counts. Shearer spent eight years in opposition and never got the chance to do a single thing.

One of his campaign workers said to me once that she thought it would be wonderful to live in a country where a person like David Shearer could become leader. So she worked for him. But would it be? What we lost was the chance to find out.

A prime minister with David Shearer’s intellectual and emotional complexity? With his very apparent kindness and his enormous humanitarian drive? A prime minister about whom we might be able to say, he is the best of us?

It might have been a disaster. Vaccillation in a crisis. Vaccillation not in a crisis: unable to commit to any bold new plan. Prey to forces more ruthless, cunning and malignant than he suspected. Unable ever to make the simple decision to say no, and thus surrendering the very essence of being in charge. Would he have been merely latter-stage David Lange redux?

Decisive, hard-bitten pragmatists have proven value, after all.

Or would he have been great? A humanist who knew every child had the right to live in a warm, dry home, and would brook no excuses for not making it happen. Who knew that high rates of penal incarceration, rheumatic fever and under-treated mental illness are signs of a broken society that must be fixed. Not sometime or never, but starting now. Someone determined to make a difference on things that really do matter.

Would David Shearer have been that leader, or the other one? We don’t know. I wanted to know. I thought it was worth the risk. Just imagine if it turned had out well.

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