Cuckoo in the Nest: In the name of God, David Shearer, go!


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IT’S NO LONGER just David Shearer who’s for the chop. Unless the entire Labour Party digs deep into what remains of its moral resources and hauls out sufficient courage to depose its present leader, then the future of the entire labour movement will be at stake.

For months now journalists, commentators and party members have been focusing their attention on the performance of David Shearer. Who is this man? Does he have what it takes to win? Is he improving? Did he become Labour’s leader by design or by default?

None of that matters now. Everybody who’s been paying attention understands that David Shearer was a right-wing ring-in who saw an opportunity to become a Labour MP and took it. Mr Shearer possessed no long or strong connections with either the national or the local party organisation when he put himself forward as the candidate for Mount Albert. He still doesn’t. He was selected only because Phil Goff (his former boss) stood behind him. Such connections as have developed since he entered Parliament are largely the work of dedicated party workers and supporters.

This is telling, because no sooner was he elected, than Mr Shearer began building a strong and extensive network of media contacts. He would, for example, get together on nearly a weekly basis with the Radio Live politicos John Tamihere, Willie Jackson, Matt McCarten and Matthew Hooton at a fashionable Ponsonby bar. Backbenchers host, Wallace Chapman, was wooed, and even the Daily Blog editor, Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury, found himself on the list of media figures to be courted by the new member for Mt Albert. Mr Shearer also acquired a regular spot on the UNITEC radio station during which he interviewed everyone from the war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, to the author of this posting.

And these are only the names which have come to light in left-wing circles. There can be little doubt that Mr Shearer was courting significant right-wing media figures every bit as assiduously as he was winning friends and influencing people on the Left.

We should, perhaps, pause at this point and take stock of this information. Here was a complete political newbie with virtually no longstanding ties to his party, the unions or any other left-wing NGOs. What might such a person be expected to do before attempting anything else? Get to know his electorate? Cultivate the editor and reporters of the local giveaway paper? Start developing the relationships so necessary to understanding the Labour movement?

That’s certainly what the electorate MPs of the past would have done, but Mr Shearer is cut from very different cloth. He hit the ground running in a frantic rush to construct a web of media contacts and relationships more appropriate to a political party leader than a humble back-bencher. One could be forgiven for thinking that, from the moment he entered Parliament, becoming the leader of the Labour Party was not, for Mr Shearer, some sort of vague, long-term ambition, but his primary and immediate goal.

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Now, before you accuse me of hatching dark conspiracy theories, or channelling Robert Harris’s The Ghost Writer, let me just alert you to the research I have already done on Mr Shearer’s background. (Available here and here.) Suffice to say that it is not at all in the tradition of past Labour leaders and raises a number of questions to which neither Mr Shearer himself, nor his supporters, have ever provided satisfactory answers.

Now, some might say that it was this very unorthodoxy which most recommended Mr Shearer to both his colleagues and a great many other New Zealanders. His celebrated “back story” was brilliantly summarised in the neat formula: John Key left New Zealand, became a currency trader and made 50 million dollars. David Shearer left New Zealand, became a UN aid administrator and saved 50 million lives. Here, at last, was the Centre-Left’s candidate from Central Casting. Surely, anyone who could face down Somali warlords was more than capable of going toe-to-toe with John Key?

Certainly, that was the line Mr Shearer’s carefully cultivated support network of journalists and commentators was only too happy to promote – and a majority of the Labour Caucus was happy to go along for the ride. Most of them had learned to pay a great deal more attention to what the media was telling them than to anything the Labour Party rank-and-file might say. Mr Shearer’s rival for the Labour leadership, David Cunliffe, may have been a West Auckland MP since 1999, and served as a Cabinet Minister in the Labour Government led by Helen Clark, but during that 12 year career he had signally failed to construct a media network of Mr Shearer’s power and reach. Caucus voted for Mr Shearer.

Once again, it is worth pausing to reflect on that extraordinary result.

Here was a Caucus member of less than three years standing: someone who had risen without trace from that mysteriously opaque no man’s land between the Labour Party’s organisational and parliamentary wings; a candidate parachuted into a safe Labour seat from the Party Leader’s very own aircraft; a man who possessed not only no national campaigning experience, but who also lacked any real emotional or ideological ties to the Labour Party he was now charged with leading to electoral victory in 2014.

If the Caucus had gone out of its way to choose the man least likely to defeat John Key, one of the shrewdest and most effective National Party prime ministers in New Zealand’s political history, they could hardly have done better than David Shearer.

And now everybody inside – and outside – the Labour Party Caucus knows it. Mr Shearer has grown into a huge and dangerous cuckoo in Labour’s nest. Since his ill-conceived intrusion he has either injured or ejected at least three of Labour’s chicks, and if something is not done to remove him, then all of their siblings will likely share a similar fate – and the disintegrating nest itself tumble to the ground.

At this difficult moment in its history, New Zealand cannot afford to lose Labour as a viable opposition party. If ours is to remain a substantive – and not merely a formal – democracy, the government of John Key needs to feel the restraining political influence of a credible alternative regime.

It is, therefore, the clear duty of every member of the Labour Caucus – and the Labour Party – to repeat to David Shearer the words Oliver Cromwell directed at the unrepresentative Rump Parliament in 1653, and which the House of Commons itself repeated to the failed figure of Neville Chamberlain in the grim days of May 1940:

“You have sat here too long for any good that you have been doing lately. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”


  1. The Manchurian Candidate.
    Shearer was selected to lead Labour to ensure the continuing success of the neo-liberal revolution. Indeed it is the elevation of people like him and Douglas in the 80s that is actually more important to corporate interests than the placement of Key, as a corporate Labour Party ensures there is no real alternative for voters.

  2. At this difficult moment in its history, New Zealand cannot afford to lose Labour as a viable opposition party.

    Labour hasn’t been a viable “opposition party” since 1984 when they took on the economic policies of the right. You cannot oppose policies that you fundamentally agree with.

  3. “At this difficult moment in its history, New Zealand cannot afford to lose Labour as a viable opposition party.”

    Chris – it can be tough having to let go – but it’s already too late.
    This is politics! Sentimentality in today’s democracy is nothing but a luxury a growing portion of the electorate is unable to afford.
    A clique of the self-serving decided a long time ago that the plebs owe them something, and they’re going to hang in for grim death. So be it!

    Pushing shit uphill is not really worthwhile any longer.

    What are we really talking about now anyway? – only a fight over a name or ‘brand’.
    “LABOUR” in its current form doesn’t stand for the principles on which it was founded – it can’t even be regarded as left of centre. Its hijackers in parliament are not representative of party values, or even the will of its members.
    It doesn’t even have as much integrity as a fossil known as a Dunne exercising a bow tie and a hairdo 17km north of here.

    That cohort of lifetime Labour supporters and voters, the adherents to Labour principles, those that The Party purports to represent DID NOT leave Labour. Instead, because of what amounts to mechanics – a few in the Parliamentary wing left the Labour Party whilst engineering a hostile takeover of the name and brand.

    Uphill. Shit. Push.

    Really – it’s time to ditch, to find ways of using alternative options to defeat the current junta in power, short term, and to then rebuild.

    What’s become known as the ABC have written the Labour epilogue already. That’s not to say that at some future stage it won’t be resurrected – merely that such a resurrection will only be possible when the ABC are long gone and we’re all pissing on their graves.

  4. Well argued, eloquently expressed. Betrayed by Rogernomics, I have since given my electorate vote (begrudgingly) to Labour only because I live in a marginal electorate where it counts. But no longer will I bother to do so, unless things change in a big way.
    I fear that few Labour MP’s are now aware of the distinctions between things like left wing, right wing, communist, socialist, fascist, neo-liberal, etc. I fear that even fewer could clearly explain who Cromwell was, or what the Rump Parliament was. I fear we live in darkening times.

  5. But he’s not going to go quietly, Chris. You’ve seen that – on TV news – he’s adamant he’s going to be the leader of the Labour Party (and take it to its final downfall …. almost 28 years since Roger Douglas took over the Labour Party and tried to destroy it then . He didn’t succeed. Will Shearer?

  6. At last some realism, labour is a dead duck, its lost its spine, lost its heart, lost its head…still a revolution will take place…and when it does the population will find its soul and and the cycle will startover…and labour may rise from the waste land.

  7. Dennis Skinner says it so very well:

    While we have that whole heaving bunch of … instead.

    I was willing to give Shearer a go – until the story about the beneficiary on the roof. The old ‘divide and rule’ game.

    Labour should not be about ‘handouts to beneficiaries’. Every unemployed or under-employed person is a failure of government. Government failed to use its power to unite and facilitate for all the people of the nation. All. Workers. Carers. Children and seniors. Business makers large and small, rural and urban. All.

    If Labour wants to take that role again, it needs to be about making the country fit for workers and enterprisers. Removing the artificial barriers to quality, pertinent training (apprenticeships and retraining or upskilling) put there by the stupid ‘user pays’ chants of the 1990s and on. And about a vision or mission worth spending energy and creativity on – by workers, whether they take pay or make pay.

    If Cunliffe can flush the Augean stables – bring him on. And if Labour constituencies want to keep their present representatives – let them speak. A touch of democracy to remind representatives that they need to be frequently seen to be desired.

  8. Here’s my theory/prophecy: yes Labour is the new right. Once Key is out National will be gone forever, relegated to the history books. The new left is Greens/Mana. With this coalition a new social order will arise. A more stable political landscape based on a different set of values than those of the present lot in power today! Mauri ora!

  9. Shearer became the leader of the Labour Party by the consent of the Labour caucus, and has stayed leader (so far) through the machinations of the same caucus. And as you mentioned, he was in the first place parachuted in by certain members of that caucus. So at the parliamentary level there is at least some agreement with the lurch to the right that he represents.

    What I cannot get over is the ease with which some of these people, New Zealanders themselves, come to conclude that the people of NZ don’t really matter. What is it with them? Do they fancy themselves as “citizens of the world” the minute some bigwig invites them to dinner in order to suborn them?

    One can only hope that courage and decency resurfaces within the parliamentary Labour Party before even more ground is lost.

    • To add to what I have already said: you have issued a challenge to Shearer and his supporters that very much deserves an answer.

  10. Well, I would have thought and had almost hoped that there would be a groundswell of dissent coming from the wider membership. But I have realised that the only truly vocal base within the membership are the left leaning activists, who are vocal on one and the odd other blogsites.

    The bulk of the membership are mostly middle class members of middle to mature age, and they are not in the mood to rock the boat. They are rather reflective and also concerned about their own centrist concerns, be this job security, house prices, affordability of weekly necessities and the likes.

    They are not in the mood to push for radical upheaval.

    As for the voters, the ones that keep supporting Labour tend to be the loyal ones, who will vote Labour no matter what. The rest have long abandoned Labour.

    The bulk of the caucus (or perhaps rather “carcass”) in Parliament are also too concerned with stability and do not want to rock the boat. They have not realised and seem unable to realise, that the potential voters to convince and focus on are the large non voter base, and former Labour voters, who want a strong, principled opposition party.

    Competing for votes with National will certainly destroy Labour, as it will then just stay where it has been for 2 decades. There is little point in competing with the Greens, as they have a loyal core support base also, and former Labour voters now supporting the Greens will need to see fundamental change in Labour to perhaps vote Labour again.

    Yes, Labour is in a total dilemma, and Shearer is doing nothing good while clinging to his position. He is either too arrogant or thick to do the decent thing, to resign. I cannot see one person alone challenge Shearer, it will only be a kind of brokered deal between personalities and MPs that could do it, but that will not make for stable situation within.

    The public is mostly so tired and disillusioned with politics as a whole, they do not really care anymore.

    So it is a shambles.

    A new party to the left could bring change, with the right personalities, but I cannot see one or a group of some get it organised. The old activist leaders have moved to Mana, but Mana is perceived by too many as Hone’s Party or the alternative Maori Party, and that perception will never give Mana more than minority party status.

    Miracles happen, but it is a disgrace that one has to wait for such.

    I am almost hoping the next polls will show Labour below 30 per cent, as then the tired and self serving bunch in caucus may finally get too damned scared and worried and do what needs to be done.

    • f___ labour, they choose a bumbling fifth rate speaker over a top class left wing ,for the people, excellent speaker. They are only interested in their own benefits. It’s about the money and they get it win or lose. The other David is a joy to listen to,very fluid and expressing ideas that are coherent and relevant to the average person. Listening to Shearer is like fingernails on a blackboard and not much more inspiring. Those that support Shearer will be remembered as the traitors to the party and the country that they are.For the sake of those of us that don’t have a gold plated retirement plan, please do the right thing before it is to late.

  11. Thank you for drawing attention to David Shearer’s article “Outsourcing War”. He writes really well, is there hope therefore that he can speak with this level if eloquence? I have been reading your comment for many years and used to look forward to your articles. However of late it seems you have fallen prey to what Bruce Jesson critiques in his writings on anti intellectualism. Hang on I know everyone will be shouting me down! You are an intellectual yes I admit this point, but are you behaving rationally. I read excerpts from Jesson yesterday on Edwards blog site and he certainly challenges some values that the liberal left hold dear. Did you read Shearer’s article? I just have and yes he does challenge simplistic liberal ideals, but are these ideals dead in the water in the face of highly organised Neo cons who are scarily pragmatic and superbly well connected with each other. Though it may be painful to give up the belief that left and right political wings are as clearly defined and relevant today as they were in the 1970s maybe it is time to be really hard headed and do what Shearer has done in this article, admit that pragmatism may work better in the battle against Neo Liberal control of the populis. He admits the presence of corporateinterference into warfare and attempts to develop a means of controlling and monitoring these mercenaries. I recognise this is challenging to liberal ideals but I Can see his point. And maybe this is an applicable attitude to use as a Method in terms of winning over sufficient voters to dethrone Mr Key? Perhaps if we all got together behind Shearer instead of giving rightist bloggers so much fuel to discredit leftist s as irrational and divided, we could be celebrating by next election. Jesson critiques the left as irrational and obsessed with identity politics, I actually see his point. So what can we agree are the rational bottom lines for our country. Mine would be to improve on our level if sovereignty, to promote local industry, to return our education system to a free and broad based liberal system, to regain the privacy we are fast losing, to regain our independent foreign policy and develop green industries. Can we get away from destructive personality politics and move on please. Mr Trotter you are damaging your own cause with good motives I know but still it is destructive. Can we unite behind some ideas and maybe forget the ego driven side of politics. Mr Shearer is an intelligent pragmatist maybe he is just what we need right now. Later I agree a return to traditional Labour values will be possible. Thank you for your thought provoking writing over many years and please don’t take ths as an attack. Arohanui.

    • I do not agree with you Jean Devanny. To begin with, Chris’s article does not focus on personality but on actions, at least some of which could do with an explanation. Secondly, in a democracy it is not up to us to blindly give our support to anyone, it is up to aspiring politicians to win our support. Thirdly, you think that after a bout of “intelligent pragmatism” a return to Labour values is possible. The whole focus of Chris’s piece is that Labour as a vehicle for those values could be damaged beyond repair by the sort of pragmatism that Mr Shearer appears to be offering.

      Mr Shearer’s mode of pragmatism has already allowed National’s undemocratic tendencies a field day, and the current tension in the Labour Party seems to revolve around attempts to change its culture and resistance to those attempts. Resistance occurs not just because some people want to make trouble but because once social democracy is lost it is very hard to regain.

  12. David Shearer had an unfortunate lizard-like mannerism of licking his lips every 30 seconds when he first came on the scene.which concerned me. ..maybe he’s had a bit of media training since then! I’ve wanted to give him a trail run, as he seemed a decent man given his past work, but lately I’ve been increasingly frustrated at his lack of passion and energy and outrage at what is happening to NZ ..and this article explains the bigger story. Thanks. Where is the leader with vision, fire and oratory to take on this destructive government?

  13. I am guessing that Chris is a bit peeved that Shearer saw through him as a shallow opportunist. More interested in making a living than being honest.

    Somehow Trotter missed the fact that Shearer had a significant role at the UN with a budget of billions.

    Funny enough. A friend of mine considers Trotter as one of the very few people who deserves knee capping due to his activity at Otago University over 30 years ago.

    But. On he goes. Berating a man who is massively his superior.

    If Chris could do it better, why hasn’t he joined in politics?

  14. If David Shearer had the interest of the party at his heart he should do the only realistic thing and fall on his sword and resign his position as Party leader for the betterment of the party and be replaced by a leader who!s persona is one of certainty and confidence.

    David may be a nice guy and im certain that he is however,he is not comfortable when confronted by the media as should be by a leader of historically serious political party such as Labour.

    If some may think my comments harsh or unfounded check out last weeks Backbenchers,the last couple of minuets of that program that allows the panel 30 seconds off cuff comment to what they have been thinking about.David chose to think about labour relations and what a stumble it was as compared to the other two panelists who were comfortably fluent in their 30 second off cuff thoughts.

    Then of course there is the new untested rule of the party and its membership selecting who should be their leader,a process that they say untested will take about two months.My advice to the caucus would be for them to get all the contenders for leader in a room and as far as i can see there are three Robinson,Cunliffe and Little.Let them hammer out their cribs and select one, appoint them as a caretaker leader and then go through the process of electing the caretaker as the elected Leader, for without doubt if the process was to be rigidly adhered to the contenders would be the above mentioned.

    Understand i am not a Labour Party member but have always given them my vote.And anyway the new party leader election process was usurped early on in the year by the caucus confirming David Shearer as the preferable leader.

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