David Shearer steps out – says a lot & not much

The new Labour boss has read the public mood well by putting his name to limits on foreign ownership, but is playing his cards close to his chest on the policies that will define the first chapter of his leadership. So what policies are for the chop?

Labour MPs will feel happier than they have for some time after David Shearer's performance on Q+A this Sunday.

Already cheerier since the election thanks to poll results that have seen them gain a few points at the expense of National (rather than the Greens), it would have been a tonic to see Shearer handle television - and some probing questions – better than he has before.

There's still a way to go – mostly around eradicating the second guessing that goes on inside his head as he tries to find the best, or the safest, word – but Shearer gave his most competent performance to date in a TV studio. There was a hint of steel there too, which would have encouraged his colleagues given how uncertain and wavering he has been on the Ports of Auckland dispute.

Before you say it, yes, there are plenty of other important aspects to a successful leadership than just being able to handle yourself on telly. But make no mistake, it's a crucial skill for any political leader in 2012 and until now he has been pretty poor.

Shearer revealed on Q+A he would be sponsoring a new private members' bill that would make it harder for foreigners to buy New Zealand land – the minister would have much less discretion to approve any sale and the buyer would have to do more to prove the sale was of benefit to New Zealand.

It's good populist politics. Not exactly the nitty gritty of creating jobs and getting the economy back on track, but one that will get voters' attentions and win the approval of most. The underlying message is, 'we share the same worries as you do and we get it'.

What Shearer wouldn't do is talk policy. The Q+A panel applauded him for stalling so effectively, but it's telling that he's not willing to commit to policies born of the Phil Goff Labour Party, and which he campaigned on as an MP.

Shearer made some positive noises about raising the retirement age, even though his deputy Grant Robertson has suggested that needs to be re-considered. Obviously the party hasn't reached consensus on that one yet, but it'd be disappointing for them to retract it. It more than any other policy stood out in the 2011 for showing political courage; the party moved the issue forward and won more public support for it than anyone expected. To back away now would send all the wrong signals.

Goff's policy of extending Working for Families to beneficiaries was also bold – his way of trying to use WFF's talent for redistribution to extend financial aid to the poorest. But it seemed to jar with New Zealanders' sense that working kiwis deserve some government help that others don't get. It's not emblematic of a generous spirit, but it's one seemingly well ingrained in our national psyche. And it contradicted the argument Labour made when it introduced the scheme.

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