Thu, 26 Jan 2012 4:52p.m.
There was an interesting interlude to the ongoing dispute at Ports of Auckland recently.
New Labour leader David Shearer, coming under fire for staying neutral in the dispute, or more accurately for not taking the side of the Wharfies, said he was keeping out of the debate.
It was not an instantly popular move on the 3 News website, with commenters suggesting Shearer needed to “show some balls”.
But online commenters are more polemic than Michael Moore in a decisive mood and do not represent the politically-central voters Shearer’s Labour Party will have to win over to succeed in 2014.
When asked whether the Ports dispute symbolises a problem at Labour’s heart – namely that their core support want to drag them to the left while the voters they need to attract sit somewhere in the middle – Shearer stresses the pragmatic.
“My feeling was that having a politician put their two cents in would likely muddy the water rather than help it,” he says. Perhaps this stance has something to do with his experiences working for the UN in the Middle East, a place that has suffered more than most from ‘politicians’ muddying the water.
He cleverly negotiates both sides of the fence as he continues.
“Obviously we have issues and concerns – and they are core ones in the Labour Party – about secure and safe work, which are things that are being asked for on the waterfront. At the same time it’s important that our ports run effectively and efficiently. So my feeling is… at the moment to give some space and look to see it works itself out.”
Interestingly, shortly after this interview Labour came out with a stronger message, with Phil Twyford saying the dispute is being used to push privatisation agendas.
"Ports of Auckland is a strategic asset - how would selling it off, most likely to foreign buyers, benefit New Zealand?” said Twyford last week.
Will Mr Shearer’s reign be characterised as a mix of collaboration and diplomacy where prudent, and strident opposition where necessary?
“I guess [collaboration] is my natural position,” he says.
“Working in the Middle East – particularly on the Israeli-Palestine question - is about working out ways of doing things together and collaboratively.”
But in the same breath he is keen to make sure he does not come across as a man without conviction.
“Now that doesn’t mean you do not stand up for what you believe in, in fact it is more important than ever that you do. But I do think, for example, that there are areas where we do need to be a little more bi-partisan than we have been in the past and I think that the public would like to see this too.”
The Christchurch rebuild is one of those areas.
“[I was] talking to people whose houses had been green stickered when all the houses around them had been red stickered. They were going to be an island of a small group of houses in amongst what will eventually be open fields,” he says.
Mr Shearer says the rebuild is an issue “bigger than politics”, something Labour said under Mr Goff’s leadership – but now the claim sounds more genuine.
He talks about the length of time a thorough rebuild will take and points out that if election trends continue as usual in New Zealand it is likely National and Labour Governments will have overall responsibility at one time or another.
For this reason it makes common sense that the two major parties should be in broad consensus on this issue.
But Shearer is in the business of opposition and knows he has some work to do to restore Labour’s reputation.
A look at the electoral map over the past two elections shows Labour losing ground in some of the provincial centres – with Labour seats such as Hamilton West and Taupo swinging to National.
Last year this was exacerbated with seats in the major cities either staying with or swinging to National, Christchurch Central being a case in point.
In the first two weeks of the year, Shearer spent time visiting provincial centres trying to reconnect with voters who have fallen out of love with Labour.
“We have to understand why we didn’t connect with New Zealanders and the sectors we didn’t connect with,” he says.
“In a lot of the country areas we did very badly, 21 percent rather than 27 percent.”
He talks of Napier and Whangerei, places Labour feel they should be doing better in but are being won by National MPs. He does not elaborate on his plans for provincial towns - but the message is clear; Mr Shearer wants to take things back to basics, using the opportunity of a fresh new leader to promise a new Labour Party.
What that Labour Party will care about is less clear.
“We are not looking at changing our policy mix overnight,” he says.
“But we will over the next few weeks be flagging some areas of departure from the past – in broad brushstrokes rather than detailed policy.”
Detailed policy will come out closer to 2014 says Mr Shearer and won’t budge when asked whether Labour will grapple with welfare reform in a way that is different to National but avoids them being painted as the party of the poverty trap.
“We’ll just have to wait and see, I don’t want to get into the details of this,” he says, before moving on to the makeup of the Labour Party itself.
“Part of the election was a referendum on confirming MMP as the way forward. So we need to look at what we can do to make the Labour Party more attractive and bring more people and ideas into it.
“We need a more effective campaigning machine as well. So we will be looking at this as well as policy areas.”
It has been argued that a better appreciation of how MMP works may have seen a Labour-led coalition come much closer to National in last year’s election.
There were several electorates where the combined tally of Labour and Green electorate votes exceeded the National MPs vote and this played into National’s hands.
Ohariu was a case in point with Labour’s Charles Chauvel and the Green Party’s Gareth Hughes combined tally being higher than Peter Dunne’s.
National came under considerable fire for what 3 News reporter Patrick Gower described as ‘Dirty Deals’, but when the election dust had settled it was the organisation of the National Party and its allies in ensuring they did not shoot each other in the foot that ensured a workable majority for the right.
Those who are not outraged by ‘dirty deals’ argue they are a by-product of how an MMP system works and clever coalitions win elections by campaigning in tandem.
Teapot tapes and clumsily written letters to the Ohariu electorate aside, National’s MMP dealings may have been awkward but they just about paid off. In 2008 they were more successful, but that was largely down to the ACT Party spending the last three years furiously hitting the self-destruct button.
Mr Shearer hints at future co-operation between the Greens that may take this into account.
“If we are in Government in 2014, it is likely we will have some form of formal coalition with the Greens,” he says.
“Looking forward, this means we have to start thinking about how we position ourselves. Obviously we are after the same votes so we are in competition with each other – at the same time we want to collaborate with each other and if the broad groupings stay as they are we want to be in a position where we can say to the New Zealand public, ‘Look, its looking like a Labour Green Government will emerge and we have experience of working together and we can do that successfully.'”
Supporters of left wing parties, who have seen them cannibalise each other’s vote in the past, will be hoping Mr Shearer’s natural inclination to co-operate will see the Greens and Labour less likely to cancel each other out in close electorates.
Mr Shearer is more combative about the Maori Party, saying Labour will continue its policy of placing strong candidates in Maori electorate seats rather than building bridges.
“We won Te Tai Tonga, we came close in Te Tai Tokerau with Kelvin Davis, in Tamaki Makaurau with Shane Jones we were just a few hundred off. So that’s two seats straight off where I think we can quite easily win and we will be going off to do that and get footholds in those areas,” he says.
The new Labour leader sees some weakness in the current Maori Party set up and says that could play into Labour’s hands.
“The Maori Party has some difficulty, obviously they are winning some of those Maori electorate seats, but a lot of those constituents, who are voting for Maori Party candidates are putting their party vote Labour’s way.
“I think there is a bit of a dichotomy there, which I think they are going to have difficulty squaring, once again there are some issues which sit comfortably with both parties but they think they are going to get more of their own policies through by joining at the moment with National than staying with Labour. But I think that tension will continue to grow in the Maori Party.”
Of course, in comparison to the National Party, and the popularity of John Key, the Maori Party is small fry. But Mr Shearer thinks the time could be ripe for a bit of a backlash against the Prime Minister.
“There is no doubt that John Key is the pole that holds up the circus tent,” he says.
“I think automatically some of the gloss will start to wear off the National Party, I think some did wear off over the election.
“You mentioned the tea party – I think that was one area where I think there was a jangle and a bit of a smell around, that I think journalists picked up. So I don’t think they are going to be quite as glowing towards Key as they have been in the past.”
But Mr Shearer the diplomat soon returns when asked if he will go on the attack or stay out of the fray.
“It will be a bit of both,” he says.
“Where we think he hasn’t performed, we will certainly have a go at pointing that out. But the pickings could be rich in other areas and we will have a go at that as well.
“As I said before we feel we should be getting beside them – adjusting their stance on things and working a little more constructively. Without making it look like we will do that all the time. In Christchurch there are bigger things at stake and a long time period to take into account.”
Whether Shearer can convincingly pull off this everyman role will obviously become clear over the next couple of years.
It’s a potentially fraught path to take, lined with rich pickings for his potential detractors.
If he falters he could be attacked for a lack of conviction, for being weak in opposition, for sitting on the fence. If successful though, he could be seen as the sort of unique politician that can elevate politics from the gutter to the stars.
At a time of voter apathy, playing the non-partisan card can see a politician hold a strong hand. But will Shearer know when to gamble?
In this respect, one might expect his freshness to count against him, but his final sentence is considered rather than naïve.
“I talked about turning the page – it’s not about changing the book or tearing out past pages, it’s just thinking about where we are going in the next ten years while being proud of what we have done in the past.
“But it’s very much about turning the page and starting a new chapter.”