Mount Albert–reading the weathervane

Labour should not over-egg its victory in Mount Albert. Phil Goff needed the win more than John Key needed to close the gap in a safe Labour seat. But both need to do some serious thinking about the real winner, David Shearer

There might be some National supporters who thought their party could win Mount Albert, but they would have to be real dreamers. The seat has been solid Labour since it was established in 1946, and the best any true blue could hope for was a candidate who could narrow the gap.

By-elections are perverse critters. Voter apathy is the biggest problem, particularly when voters know their choice is not going to change a government. Just 47.5% of Mount Albert’s voters turned out – but Labour made sure it had the grunt on the ground to see their candidate home with a majority that was respectably close to Helen Clark’s in the last general election and large enough to secure Phil Goff’s mandate as the new party leader.

A large squad of former cabinet ministers door-knocked their way round the electorate as if Mount Albert was the most marginal seat in the country. Progressive party allies re-entered the Labour fold to lend their support. A 200-car fleet was assembled to transport the Labour-likely to the polling booths. The party leader was there every step of the way, from hammering up the signs to scrutinising the progress results as they came in on the night. The machine was running full-throttle.

National’s Melissa Lee stumbled on the starter’s block – and never really recovered. Her selection was clearly designed to stir things up in multi-ethnic Mount Albert – young solo mum, Korean-born, successful and stroppy, the new face of National. The first thing it stirred up was resentment in the Indian community who saw Ravi Masuku, their own National candidate for the previous two elections, pushed aside.

Lee’s next problem was the Waterview motorway. She was caught flat-footed by Transport Minister Joyce’s announcement of a compromise part tunnel-part surface alternative to Labour’s excessively expensive plan to underground the motorway extension through Mount Albert.

Lee crammed both feet in her mouth with a suggestion that the motorway could keep the criminals from South Auckland off Mount Albert streets. She promptly apologised – but was shouted down by students who tagged her as a racist for the rest of the campaign.

She wilted under the media pressure, conceded defeat before polling day, then recanted, and finally committed the cardinal sin of comparing her hourly rate as a Parliamentarian with the hourly rate of a minimum wage worker. Melissa in Blunderland was the story of the by-election.

Mount Albert’s National voters stayed home in droves on polling day. Lee pulled in 3,426 votes – just 35% of the votes secured by her predecessor, Ravi Masuku. She can still take some satisfaction from the result. She came home 1,400 votes ahead of the Greens co-leader Russel Norman who had been musing publicly and unwisely over his prospects for knocking her into third place.

David Shearer is going to make an interesting addition to the Labour benches. He is more seasoned than most of the party’s new intake from 2008. His record of international humanitarian service is substantial. Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Afghanistan, he has worked through most of the trouble-spots and tragedies of the world over the last two decades. He has an MBE and his last appointment was as Bang Ki Moon’s special deputy representative in Iraq. Less well-known is his domestic record as a Labour list candidate in 1999 and as a contestant for the Whangarei seat in 2002. Between those campaigns, he worked as an advisor to Phil Goff while Goff was Foreign Affairs Minister.

Earlier this week, Shearer and I discussed his contentious article “Privatising Protection”, published in August 2001 during his term with Goff. The article discussed the proposition that properly regulated, private military companies could be used to protect the civilian population in failing states. I put it to him that he was at odds with Goff and Labour, who had passed the Mercenary Activities [Prohibition] Act in 2003, and that John Key had labeled him “Labour’s poster boy in Mount Albert who wants to privatise the army” during the campaign. He winced at the thought.

“I never said that.” And he is right. “Privatising Protection” was written at the time when the UN could not raise peacekeeping forces to intervene effectively in Rwanda and the Congo, and the private military company Executive Outcomes had brought some security to the people of strife-torn Sierra Leone. “If you had seen an African woman with her hands chopped off, trying to tend her family, you’d know what I meant... It was written before 9/11.Things have changed since then. It was a piece of research for another time.” The world has moved on, and so has David Shearer. He has done his foreign service. Now his focus is domestic.

Shearer told me it was his friend Phil Twyford, the Labour list MP, who convinced him to stand for selection in Mount Albert. “Phil rang me to tell me he was withdrawing from selection for Mount Albert. If Phil had wanted to stand, I would not have contested,” he said.

He entered the race for selection, head down and running hard. He was up against strong local Labour rivals and short on local knowledge. He decided to listen and learn – a successful policy he continued through the election.

He was amazed to discover how many of the people he met during his campaign felt “disconnected and alienated” from political decision-making. The super-city plan, the motorway extension, public transport provision, local environmental concerns, resource management and broader local government reform are combining to create what Shearer calls “the perfect storm”. Injecting “listen and learn” community politics into central government may become his next mission.

Somehow, I do not think David Shearer will sit on the back-benches for long, just being happy to be the MP for Mount Albert.