On David Shearer, and the Maori Party

Of the three Davids contesting the Labour leadership, David Shearer’s main appeal is as the anti-candidate, the guy who aspires to the top job after a career of high achievement outside Parliament. He’s similar in that respect, to you-know-who. In 2009, I remember asking what had been the biggest culture shock between his new job as MP for Helen Clark’s former seat of Mt Albert and his old job as a senior administrator with UN humanitarian missions in Iraq, Jerusalem, Lebanon and Afghanistan. In reply, Shearer cited the taxi ride in from Wellington airport:

‘One thing that gob-smacked me had nothing to do with actual politics. I got in a taxi to come to Parliament from the airport for the first time, and he drove through the main gates, and dropped me right outside the steps.” Shearer was semi-incredulous. “Coming from where I’d been, there was no way a car could get anywhere close to a public building like that. On one hand, I love the fact that’s the case. [But] you’ve got to be a bit sensible. You could drive a truck full of fertilizer up to the front here, and more or less take out the entire Parliament.”

Hmm, now that’s an idea. It is that ingenuous quality to Shearer – not many MPs would voice such a possibility in public – that makes him both an attractive candidate and a risky prospect for the spin doctors and the image merchants. In the land of giant egos, Shearer comes across as guilelessly honest, and almost aggressively self effacing. Everyone else is so talented, they’re all doing such a great job, he’s got so much to learn about politics etc etc.

It’s a quality that could make him an interesting leadership bet for some of his colleagues because – surely – someone couldn’t run successful missions under fire in Iraq etc without having leadership qualities that go beyond a relentless tendency to pat your colleagues on the back. So far, he has been an extremely low-key presence in Parliament since winning the Mt Albert by election in mid 2009. All very well being a quiet achiever, but Shearer has been completely inaudible.

Still, at least Shearer can’t be blamed by the public for any of the deeply unpopular final spasms of the Clark government, because he wasn’t in New Zealand at the time. Instead, he was running aid and reconstruction efforts in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones, and trying to convince a deeply suspicious community that he was actually on their side, and could make a difference. By comparison, winning the hearts and minds of New Zealanders should be a breeze.


The Maori Party unlocks the henhouse

So the Maori Party oppose the asset sales programme because… you know, it would hurt their Maori constituents. However, they’re also happy to prop up in power the government that is going to sell those assets and… you know, hurt their Maori constituents. There are several terms for offering assistance to those engaged in hurting your people, and none of them are very nice.

As things stand, the Maori Party plans to sit on the sidelines and complain as the government conducts asset sales known to be strongly opposed by most Maori voters. It also knows that iwi such as Tainui and Ngai Tahu will be investing in those assets, boots and all. Not us, the Maori Party will say. That’s between those iwi and the government, who really shouldn’t be doing this. That same government we will continue to prop up.

Oddly enough. the current edition of Harpers magazine carries a transcript from a not entirely dissimilar situation, 70 years ago. During the early days of the Second World War, the British comic writer P.G. Wodehouse was picked up at his villa in France – his wife had been unwilling to abandon their dog, Wonder – and interned by the Germans. A bit later on, Wodehouse wrote some jolly sketches about life behind the wire, and happily complied with German requests to beam these talks to his faithful readership in the United States, a country then still not in the war.

Subsequently, Wodehouse was thunderstruck that anyone saw anything wrong with this. He thought he was serving his constituents with a bit of light relief in dark times, and wasn’t really co-operating with the people who were attacking his homeland, or condoning their actions. Later investigations deemed Wodehouse had been silly and naïve, but not treasonous. However, such was the hostility to him in Britain, Wodehouse never set foot in his homeland again.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy and am certainly not likening the Key government to the Nazis – but merely noting the perils of selective collusion. What the two situations tell us is that you can’t conveniently ignore the wider context for your decisions, and hope to escape blame if you lend assistance to those whom you acknowledge are hurting your people, no matter how loudly you deplore their actions in doing so. At some level you’re an enabler, you’re offering comfort and validation.

And if this stance on asset sales is to be justified by the worth of the parallel good things that Maori will derive from a selective engagement with the Key government, then perhaps Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples need to show us the spreadsheet on which they have tallied the net benefit to Maori. Because that would be a really interesting document to read.

What the Maori Party negotiators seem to be angling for is a confidence and supply agreement with the government that treats asset sales as not being a confidence and supply issue, for them anyway. Oh, but isn’t that against the law? No problem, they’ll just change the law. Thus, Prime Minister John Key has signalled that he will do the necessary changes to the SOE Act to allow that exception to be made.

Ultimately, Parliament will be put through whatever contortions are deemed necessary by Key, Turia and Sharples, for their mutual political advantage. And for the greater good of Maori, of course.


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