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?

Comments (17)

by stuart munro on June 28, 2013
stuart munro

Shearer still isn't quite Gillard - he didn't backstab a popularly elected leader. But he is bleeding left and right - the left find he lacks committment, and the centrist part of the right that are accessible to Labour require performance on specific issues.

Not quite as bad as National under Bill English, inferior to a headless chicken, it bled but didn't run. With growth of 0.3%, the Key government are a shoo-in as the next opposition, what is not so clear is that Shearer will lead the next government. Winston might be a better choice in terms of experience, Norman in terms of talent.

At least until Cunliffe determines to beat the Kobayashi Maru.

by Matthew Percival on June 28, 2013
Matthew Percival

Bring Back Goff!!!

by Andrew Geddis on June 28, 2013
Andrew Geddis

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.

True. Except that in both 1978 and 1981, National won additional terms in government whilst getting less votes than Labour nationally - if we'd had MMP, Muldoon would have been a one term PM. And in 1996, National managed to retain government only after Peters pulled a pretty jaw-dropping switch of position - again, a majority of voters supported parties promising an end to National's rule.

So there isn't that firm a basis for assuming that in NZ, two term governments usually get a third.

by Tim Watkin on June 28, 2013
Tim Watkin

Exactly Andrew, which is what I was getting at in my reply to him. MMP is different as are the circumstances. 

Stuart, are you seriously saying National can't win next year and that Peters or Norman could end up as PM? It'll most likely be close with National probably favourites at the moment and the other just ain't gonna happen.

by stuart munro on June 29, 2013
stuart munro

Tim, if everyone voted, it would indeed be impossible for National to return. The greater part of New Zealand does not support and has not benefited from their policies. The voting level has yet to be determined however, freak weather conditions may yet play a Key role. 

Peters would probably make quite a good PM, especially as a chancellor-like single term coalition caretaker. No further baubles to distract him. Norman might do well too, or Turei, but the press would make life tough for them early on - just as it is at present for Shearer. Peters enjoys a level of immunity to speculative media attacks that Shearer must envy.

Labour has only to decide if it wants to lead a coalition, or join one as a junior partner. Polly Toynbee has told them how to win the election. It's like the advice everyone gives Labour "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family..."

So far they have chosen not to chose life. National cannot win the election, short of force majeure, but Labour can certainly lose it if they keep on trainspotting.

by stuart munro on June 29, 2013
stuart munro

But I'd still like to see someone beat the Kobayashi Maru. It's deep in Labour's DNA.

by Rex Ahdar on June 29, 2013
Rex Ahdar

David Shearer rather reminds me of the late Bill Rowling in terms of his earnest, pleasant, gentlemanly demeanour. These fine qualities seem, sadly, to be a liability for party political leadership in NZ. He has, in fact, found and is living his 'mojo'. His most authentic self is just not that of an aggressive streetfighter.When Mr Shearer attacks Key and National's blunders I am never really feel fully convinced because I sense it is not his natural disposition to lambast someone. He is in the (secular) ministry of reconciliation. He is a builder not a demolisher. He is, I am sure, capable of righteous indignation on occasions, but that fire-and-brimstone cannot be summoned on the weekly basis required for his supporters, the media and the swinging voter.

Given David Shearer's pre-Beehive career as an administrator for international humanitarian bodies, I agree with Tim that one could not see him having any latent, covert right-wing proclivities. 

by stuart munro on June 29, 2013
stuart munro

@ Rex - except that Labour's cryptofascist ABC faction find him palatable, and the more old-school Labour Cunliffe, unpalatable.

Plenty of stewardship roles out there - not sure that interring the putrefying remains of the Key government is one of them though.

by Richard Aston on June 30, 2013
Richard Aston

Such a shame Labour couldn't adopt a co leader system as per Green and Maori.

I think Rex is onto something seeing Shearer as a minister of reconciliation, that would make Shearer a good coalition leader - perhaps. If Shearer's obvious shortcomings in the public political sphere are the issue then a feisty media savvy co leader could handle that role. Who would that be? Probably Cunliffe.

Is the Labour party even capable of thinking outside the box? Probably no.

Ok ok, I agree it looking bad, so is there still time for a new labour party to emerge from a lounge in south or west Auckland?  Is it time to just burn the old Labour party to the ground to favour a phoenix event of major proportions?



by Peggy Klimenko on July 01, 2013
Peggy Klimenko

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.

This comment by Katharine Murphy suggests that she hasn't kept up with what's been going on in Australia. On Gillard's watch as PM, an impressive programme of legislation (532 pieces) has passed both houses; the more remarkable given that she managed this with a minority government. As Anne Summers has pointed out, without Gillard, Australia wouldn't have a carbon price, the NDIS, the Murray-Darling agreement, the Gonski reforms, or the agreement which provides for annual leadership dialogue between Australia and China. I doubt that, were Gillard indeed as characterised by Murphy, she'd have managed to accompish so much.

Rudd,despite his self-proclaimed skills in Mandarin, wasn't able to bring off the China agreement while he was PM. His inability to achieve anything of moment is a big part of the reason he was deposed in 2010 - along with the fact that his public approval ratings had declined along with those of the ALP, and his caucus detested him. That's still the case.

@ Stuart Munro: Gillard didn't actually want the job of PM, and needed a lot of persuasion. To accuse her of "backstabbing" Rudd is an overstatement. The evidence shows that her colleagues' faith in her ability to actually do the job wasn't misplaced.

She's been subjected to an unrelenting campaign of white-anting, including misogyny of the most vicious and contemptible sort, by Rudd, who was gleefully abetted in this  by the Australian media. In pursuit of revenge, Rudd has all but wrecked his own party's chances of re-election; not that he cares. He can blame defeat on Gillard, after all.

It's all about him. I guessed that, despite what commentators thought, he wouldn't call an early election, and so it has proved. He wants to sit in The Lodge and be PM for as long as he can, without actually doing any governing - which is probably just as well, given that he's useless at it.

If Australians were so foolish as to re-elect the ALP with him as leader, they'd pretty soon remember why they went off him in 2010.

Given how the ALP leadership issue has played out, and the nature of the main players, I'm sceptical about there being any lessons in it for the NZLP with regard to Shearer.

by stuart munro on July 02, 2013
stuart munro

@ Richard - the great thing about a well-designed coalition is that it has a role for everyone. What a tag-team the four parties could put together to kick the stuffings out of this useless Key administration.

The smarter folk could do well in the policy kitchen too.

No, Labour need not be burnt to the ground. A barbeque would cover it. The Blairite new Labour presumptions were a total failure. They don't even deserve to be dignified with annihilation. But Labour has to decide whom it serves. It's served Saruman for a bit too long really. Wormtongues can't solve the problems of ambition and insincerity. NZ has hungry kids and housing crisies and Labour doesn't know what to do about it? There hasn't been enough fire in Labour lately to burn anything. Maybe they need Hone to rebuild and re-radicalise their Maori arm. Their reigning policy of elite capture serves no-one.


by Richard Aston on July 02, 2013
Richard Aston

Good points Stuart and well articulated.

I just wonder if Labour's problem is it's bleeding good people, or at least failing to attract them. Agree that Hone would be fantastic within Labour, but would they attract him, could they hold him, doubt it.

I ask myself a question , if i decided to stand for office which party would I choose? Having been a Labour voter all my life my answer surprised me. Probably Greens first, maybe an independent, Labour third . 


by stuart munro on July 02, 2013
stuart munro

It struck me much the same way Richard. I was brought up Labour, and often voted for them. They left me. The Greens have a few edges that want work, but they are solidly democratic, forward looking, and well-informed. Lots of creative folk in there too.

The decline of independents has been a loss for NZ, an unintended side effect of MMP in part I think. The best reason to go Green for you would be that they don't do gender wars. This makes meetings and membership a much friendlier and more cooperative enterprise. They are modeling the kind of change we want to see in the world.

by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2013
Tim Watkin

Richard, Hone has some great skills, but just doesn't play nicely with others. Labour has enough problems...

Peggy, I think that's a generous take on Gillard. Everyone pretends to not want the leadership. Perhaps she didn't want it then and on those terms - but she didn't lack ambition or steel. I did Murphy a disservice by not linking to her piece - here. She's quite specific in her take on Gillard's political failings, for all that you say. And while you make a good defence for her, I was surprised to see the carbon price listed as a plus. It was far from what Labor had been promising and largely seen as a failure of nerve and nous, wasn't it?

Or you could take Liam Dann's view that it was largely economics beyond her control that did for her.


by stuart munro on July 02, 2013
stuart munro

Arguably, the Maori party is now paying the price for playing nicely with National. There are circumstances in which a politician has to be prepared to walk. Hone was a bit of a brat back in the day, but having to put together his own show has made him grow up fast. Hone would drive Labour crazy, which is just what they need.  Better at least than sleep-walking their way to defeat.

by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2013
Tim Watkin

Not sure if I'd agree about the growing up fast, Stuart. And I think there's enough crazy going on in Labour at the moment! I take your point though and in better times he'd be a great fly in their ointment. But not sure either of them would benefit from him coming on board. And if Mana can squeeze a 2nd MP, they may be more useful to Labour that way.

by Peggy Klimenko on July 05, 2013
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim: I'm not suggesting that Gillard lacked ambition, just that she wasn't keen to replace Rudd. And who could blame her, given what's happened since? She' a tough person - a lesser mortal would've crumbled under the attack - but she's undoubtedly smart enough to have foreseen that it would happen. She'd know the nature of the Australian polity, after all.

Nor am I defending the carbon price; it isn't necessary to agree with her policies, or the raft of legislation passed under her watch. What is of moment is that she managed to achieve so much, despite the handicap of a minority government. And Rudd so lamentably under-achieved, despite having a majority government. As I noted earlier, this was the reason he was rolled, along with the fact that his caucus detested him, his personal approval ratings had declined, along with those of the ALP, and an election was looming.

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