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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Comments (9)

by kerry weston on March 13, 2012
kerry weston

Some of us haven't forgotten Labour's dirty little trick they played on DPB recipients the last time they raised WFF payments. Namely, they cut the base benefit rate by $20 a week, so the $40 extra WFF payment was really only worth $20. Not publicised of course. I note that Helen didn't bother to reverse the Ruthanasia cuts or do anything to close the equal pay gap. Such a joke for her to be called a feminazi.

Shearer will have to make his presence felt far more intensely to impress me. Labour needs to show they're  looking after the interests of the bottom half of society - or not. No more prevarication. You'd think Shearer would be The Man with a Social Conscience, a warrior for the people, with his impressive CV looking after the dispossessed in other lands, now wouldn't you? Frankly, I have more faith in Hone and Winston to fill that role.

by Tim Watkin on March 14, 2012
Tim Watkin

It's a point a lot of people have made to me Kerry – that Shearer hasn't begun decisively and that doesn't auger well for him. Does he not have a clear vision? Is he not tough enough to impose himself on the party? Are their too many chiefs in Labour to allow him to be decisive?

Or, more simply, is it just too early? It hasn't been long and is too early to judge. As Rick Santorum is showing in the US, you write politicians off too soon at your peril.

And what foundation do you have for such faith in Peters and Harawira? Has Peters ever used the power he's in the way you wish? Is Harawira ever likely to get enough power to make a difference for those folks? (Those are open questions, not point scoring).

by kerry weston on March 15, 2012
kerry weston

David Shearer: As soon as he returned to NZ, the smoke signal went up : "leader in waiting". Seems to me any serious leadership contender would have been spending time at flax-roots level finding out what matters to kiwis, how they perceive their political representatives and to what extent Labour aligns with those. And have something sunstantial to say about it when he does indeed assume party leadership. Maybe he's going to let others be the rottweilers in the House - Cunliffe is persuasive.

I read Shearer's Cullen Club speech with interest. Big emphasis on education, but again, no substance. First of all, he'll have to get past the current structure that serves to use secondary schools as holding pens for disaffected youth. The research, and indeed the Ministry's own programmes for dealing with "the tail", emphasise the teacher-student relationship as paramount. You don't build great relationships in overloaded classrooms with stressed-out teachers. The students and their families do not need more authorities waving the big stick, telling them they are rubbish & need counselling. The common characteristic is hopelessness. The antidote is helping students build their own "ladders of hope" out of the situations they are in. Real alternatives. This will take time, money and a national mindset to invest in our children.

Some of it is really simple - and Shearer picked up on it. The naughtiest kids very often have  poor literacy. I'm talking Year 9 and 10 kids being unable to string a coherent sentence together for their written work. Seriously. That needs to be dealt with before these kids hit high school. Boys, especially, hide their illiteracy behind a facade of swaggering, aggressive, disruptive behaviour.

And most of all, our students need to believe there is something more waiting for them than working piecemeal in retail or other casualised labour. More than clocking up a student loan and going overseas to work. Strangely, many of us don't want to leave our family and friends, we want to live satisfying lives right here.

My faith in Hone and Winston? Merely to hold the rest of them to account.

by Tim Watkin on March 15, 2012
Tim Watkin

I hate to say I told you so, but... in the news today, Shearer backs CGT but backs away from the tax-free zone and taking GST off fruit and vege.



by jack on March 15, 2012

I agree with CGT, most countries have them.  I was surprised he moved away from tax free for the first 5000 because

by jack on March 16, 2012

sorry, pushed the wrong button... because that was starting to head in the right direction.. Infact I think it should  be up to 15000.  This would help those receiving a benefit to get back to work...  When you look at government spending only 6 years ago, it was down about 40  billion.  Now it is up to almost 70 billion.  What changed??  (don't include the natural disasters.)  We can afford a "tax cut" for the lower end of the work force.   Gst should go back down to 12.5 percent for everything and bring back the tax increase to the top 10 percent.  Key's tax cut cost us 1.2 billion while it was suppose to be neutral.   I will have to wait and see about Shearer, though..

Interesting about the employee of Goldman Sachs describing what the companies attitude is.. frightening and they're knocking on New Zealand's front door.


by kerry weston on March 16, 2012
kerry weston

Yeah, i agree with the CGT too.

Been mulling over why Shearer is coming across as so bland - he doesn't want to get stroppy in the House , but he doesn't want to lay out policy either and tell us what Labour now stands for. Seems to think he can sit around consulting, yet somehow be ready to go as a new PM in 2014. Looks to me like he's playing the timid kind of game - got his hands hiding his test paper so no-one can see what he's got and steal it for themselves. His rhetoric on education and his swipe at teachers ("some bad ones out there") is the kinda soft-pedal spin National put on their plans to  gut education and rejig it al la Gove in the UK. Maybe the right wing faction in Labour is ascendant - how would the public know?? He denied taking the middle ground, so Labour could draw on the strength of the Greens, Mana. 

Which just seems insane. This is exactly the time for a strong Left coalition focussed on common interests, not differences.

by Tim Watkin on March 16, 2012
Tim Watkin

Jack, you'll need to quote where those spending figures come from.

But not taking tax on the first $15,000 of anyone's income would pillage the government's books. Labour's $5000 tax free zone was costed at $1.3b every year; National claimed it would cost more. The higher you go, the more reliant you've becoming on fewer people and it's just a huge cost if what you're really trying to do it get money back into the hands of the poorest. And easier and cheaper way to achieve may be to exempt GST from some goods... or extend WFF... or increase benefits.

But a tax freezone is a very blunt instrument because it's not targetted. While it might mean more to the poorest, the billionaire gets the same benefit, which doesn't make much sense. And extending it to $15,000 just is throwing good money after bad. Without that income the government would need to cut much more than 2,000 public servants!



by Tim Watkin on March 16, 2012
Tim Watkin

Kerry, let's not leap to assumptions. He's going slow because he's a careful man, but also because he's got a caucus to hold together and convince his party to change direction. I suspect you're right – that he's on the right of Labour and there were some National-esque phrases and ideas in there. That won't be by accident - looks like he's trying to be a new, improved Key. That may or may not be wise, but that seems to be the tack at this stage.

Labour moving to the centre could work for the centre-left overall though, as they need to expand beyond their 40% combo, as discussed here.


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