No points if you guess the answer - it's pretty obvious. The real question is if and when the electoral maths could compell New Zealand Labour to follow the same path
The Australian Labour party leadership change this week is an interesting prism through which to view the New Zealand Labour Party and its travails.
Labour MPs have voted in a leader they despised, a leader they once confidently predicted the public would come to hate as much as they did. Except the public didn't. Or at least, hasn't yet.
So they turned to a woman who seemed to have great leadership skills - except she struggled with the politics and failed to convince voters she was their leader. As Katharine Murphy wrote in The Guardian:
Gillard could command admiration, but not respect. She shape-shifted. She confounded rather than connected... She did not command the caucus, the cabinet, the voters. She became a solo act, shrinking before our eyes.
While the comparison is far from perfect, it's hard not to see the New Zealand parallels and David Shearer's own struggles to command any sort of attention -- let alone respect -- from voters here. Gillard never really found her feet, and that wasn't entirely her fault. Murphy observed with the wisdom of Samuel Beckett that the end is in the beginning. Gillard's demise stems back to her own choice to betray Rudd, his desire for revenge and the public's failure to ever trust her.
Is the same true of Shearer? His selection was leader was a reaction (against Key and Cunliffe -- ABC), and he has been a reactive leader thus far. His leadership began without fanfare; could it end the same way? Could the compromise he represented simply no longer be worth it?
The hope within Labour over his elevation to the party's top job was that he was a real Kiwi; a surfing, guitar-playing normal guy, unlike Helen Clark and more like John Key. The Helengrad and Sisterhood lines could be shaken off. But they were fighting the previous war. And they were under-estimating Key. For all his brain fades and antennae-over-compass flaws he is a talented and disciplined politician with a command of detail.
Shearer has yet to show that level of mastery -- of policy, of the media, of voter mood and the current Kiwi psyche. His party looks loose. The act of faith with Shearer was that he would grow into the job and be able to add political nous and steel to his likeability and down-to-earthness. We've yet to see it.
Too much has probably been made of the Sky City box appearance by various Labour MPs. Most voters probably don't know the story and it was, in a sense, a small slip. But if the stories are true that the MPs knew the risk they were taking and that Shearer knew beforehand that they were going and didn't stop them, it becomes more telling. Can you imagine that happening under Clark? Or Key?
Perhaps the more telling point is that Labour has failed to exploit National's weaknesses -- this year and too often before that.
Again, it seems they've under-estimated Key. And Bill English for that matter. Bless his Southland socks, but the dull old Budget he presented this year seems to have been just what people wanted. And as I wrote Wednesday, National's u-turn on Auckland transport is a clever, clever political move.
How has Labour been countering? Well the most vocal they've been in the past few weeks has been about Peter Dunne and his funding -- which will move voters not a jot -- and the GCSB bill -- which while important is pretty ephemeral to folks outside the beltway. They're just picking the wrong issues and they're looking too niggly.
Since the NZ Power announcement, there's been a lack of fire, urgency and focus. For a moment there, they looked like a pro-active party that could take its destiny, and New Zealand's, in its own hands. But since that firm slide it's been back to the Shearer shuffle. There's no coherent message about a different New Zealand under Labour. That's not simply Shearer's fault by any means, but he's failing to remedy it either himself or through inspiring or compelling his colleagues to do better.
Now there's talk to gallery journalists about Shearer having until spring to turn it around or face a potential challenge. That's bad news for Shearer, of course, but it's not great for Grant Robertson or Andrew Little either. I'm not sure of the view inside the party, but from the outside neither look ready. Both a good blokes. Maybe one of them will have to be some time before the end of the year. But Robertson has yet to establish a profile, Little couldn't even win New Plymouth.
What ultimately moved Labour back to Rudd was maths and fear of losing MPs. And you know who the Rudd of New Zealand politics is? David Cunliffe. Disliked by his colleagues but ready for battle and more popular with the public.
I'm not saying Cunliffe is likely to ever be rehabilitated into leadership. Maybe Shearer still has it in him -- there have been glimpses and I've never bought the line he's some secret neo-liberal trying to drag Labour to the right. But I've never felt in a position to take sides in a Labour leadership contest because a) I just observe and b) I only know these people professionally. They're all admirable and likeable in different ways.
My instinct is that the reluctance to turn to Cunliffe this term would be immense and maybe a bridge too far. Robertson is more likely. But I never like to under-estimate the urge to win. Which leader looks most appealing to those marginal MPs and those on the next few places on the list?
Maybe some in Labour have written off this election as they did the last. As Graeme Edgeler pointed out in the thread to my other post this week, only one two-term government has failed to gain a third term. But that would be a truly pathetic stance, if so.
Maybe Shearer can yet find his mojo. But the Gillard-Shearer/Rudd-Cunliffe comparison seems one worth making as Labour MPs start asking themselves the question their comrades in Australia asked: How bad do we want it?