A leader with mediocre talents weighed down by a caucus whose bitterness is only matched by its shallowness. That is the plight of the Labour Party, and David Shearer’s next moves will entrench that perspective.
In light of his summary execution of David Cunliffe for failing to be a devout disciple in the face of sagging poll numbers, Shearer now faces the task of welding together a shadow cabinet. This task will be a study of the man’s ability to think about what’s best for himself and his party.
Cunliffe was arguably Shearer’s strongest asset on the front bench, a point Cunliffe himself knew only too well. Ironically he will now sit on the back benches with one man who is clearly the equal or perhaps better than most of the government’s front bench: Shane Jones.
Post Cunliffe, Shearer’s options are limited. Grant Robertson is deceptively smart, but he is the Environment spokesperson. Environment is not about green issues; rather it is about the apportionment of property rights in a world where human progress intersects with nature. What’s the point of ranking the Environment to number two in the caucus rank when Labour has no analysis of private property rights, let alone how those rights ought to be upheld?
Shearer is heavily reliant on David Parker in both Finance and now Economic Development. Parker is a clever politician, a lawyer by trade and has experience as a Cabinet Minister in the latter stages of the previous Labour government. But Parker’s is hog-tied to a party that is either incapable or unwilling to wean itself off a diet of big spending commitments. Why for example is Labour committed to KiwiBuild, a strategy that would see the state involve itself in the construction of 200,000 new homes? (More than three times the total stock of Housing New Zealand properties).
Shearer places great faith in Jacinda Ardern in Social Development. Aside from being disliked and isolated from the majority of her female caucus colleagues, Ardern is both linear and doctrinaire. Her default position is to argue every issue from an ideologically left perspective, something that more adept operators like Annette King and Phil Goff would periodically avoid. As a result Ardern has little in common with blue collar conservative voters, many of whom consider welfare to be an unfair wealth transfer from the battlers to the bludgers.
Clayton Cosgrove is a formidable debater in Parliament. But like Robertson he struggles to make an impression due in part to Labour’s lack of analysis for the ownership of assets or the future of New Zealand’s capital markets.
Maryan Street continues to be overrated and ineffective both inside Parliament and on the hustings. Labour has been completely outgunned by Tony Ryall in Health, and Street’s perseverance in that portfolio (while earnest) fails to close the yawning gap between the Labour and a historic Achilles heel for any government.
Nanaia Mahuta has never been popular with her caucus colleagues.. Nicknamed “the princess”, Mahuta has done well to hang on to her Tainui constituency. But she has performed poorly in Education, and is consistently bettered by her junior colleague Chris Hipkins. The trouble for Shearer is demoting Mahuta will send a signal to the Kiingitanga movement that their designated representative in Parliament is less valued, a tough sell coupled with the fact that Mahuta is a Cunliffe supporter.
William Sio is not to be underestimated for his links within the Pacific community. But Sio is a social conservative in a party that is seeking to redefine marriage to allow men to marry men and women to marry women. This strategy both offends and tests Labour’s ties with the Pacific community, a point that Sio himself has made publicly.
Phil Twyford has done well to dig in in Te Atatu and has scored headlines on local government and transport issues. But that in itself is small fry compared to the task of building an alternative government.
Beyond that Shearer has a caucus of candidates who are in the twilight of their careers (e.g. Parekura Horomia, Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff and Annette King), or who are simply too lightweight to be taken seriously (e.g. Sue Moroney, Moana Mackey, and Louisa Wall). Some options are simply not trustworthy (e.g. Charles Chauvel and David Cunliffe himself), or have yet to make an impact (e.g. Claire Curran).
Shearer could and probably will promote Chris Hipkins and Andrew Little. But neither man has any reason to show loyalty to Shearer long-term, particularly if Shearer is unable to reverse Labour’s sagging poll ratings.
Labour’s caucus is the by-product of a party and a selection system that rewards cronyism over talent, gender and sexual orientation over competence and union-dominated fiefdoms over political smarts. That is why Darien Fenton rather than Kelvin Davis or Stuart Nash sits behind Shearer at question time. The lack of talent means Shearer turns up to a gunfight with John Key holding a bread and butter knife rather than a loaded firearm.
It’s no wonder Labour’s rank and file members are itching to have a go at shaping that party’s leadership. Maybe they should start with their own MPs too.