Waiting For The Man

An interview with new Labour leader, David Shearer

by Gordon Campbell
images by Selwyn Manning – click for big versions

David Shearer’s home territory in Mt Albert seems a long way from Parliament, and its ritualised bouts of arm wrestling at Question Time. The shopping centre looks careworn, and down at heel. Look for the door to his constituency office in Mt Albert and you’ll find it tucked away below road level, on the same block as the Homey Taste Restaurant and the Baker Boy Pizzeria, and just up the street from the Fall In Love bridal wear shop. Yet despite the frayed appearance of the shopping centre, the forces of upward mobility are also simmering away, just below the surface. A remarkable number of the local real estate notices for example, make the point that buying in here will put you right in the zone for Mt Albert Grammar School.

Locally and nationally then, the same questions face David Shearer and the Labour Party he now leads. Where do you put your focus? On the relatively affluent parts of town up towards the Domain, on the middle class trying to hang onto their place on the social ladder, or the people just down the road, living three families to a section? So goes the neighhourhood, there goes the nation. Because for now, the answer has to be : all of them, all at once. Luckily for Shearer, he seems one of those people who actually looks healthier when he’s under stress – its as if the challenge gives a slow metabolism more focus, and motivation. He comes in for the interview in shirtsleeves, after doing some constituency work nearby, and without any minders in tow.

It is an interesting time to be talking to him. In the coming weeks and months, Shearer plans on giving a series of speeches setting out his political views, and where Labour stands. These won’t be State of the Nation events, he assures me, but its hard to see how they won’t be treated as the first substantive indicators of what sort of political animal this new Leader of the Opposition really is. At this point, Shearer is still disarmingly frank and unrehearsed. Ask him whether he’s actually enjoying the new role and he replies simply that its hard. Hard to say something intelligible, he says, on every single topic that people now raise with him. Hard too, to learn how to STOP talking himself into trouble on issues he cares about, but where he now feels the need to be more circumspect. And hard to be circumspect at times, without appearing to be weak. Maybe, I suggest gently, he should watch a few John Wayne movies.

Regardless, the unrehearsed quality in Shearer is one of his strongest political assets, and one he’d be a fool to try and change. Voters may not mind if he seems at times to be groping for an answer, so long as they think he’s actually trying to get to the right answer, for them. (Glib is so last year.) As for his management style, it is evident that Shearer will be a chairman of the board leader, in the Holyoake mode – which is the kind way of saying that he seems petrified right now at getting too far out in front of his team. Even if that’s the reason, the tentative nature of some of the responses below should be of concern to party supporters. A leader after all, leads, and justifies it later.

Still, it promises to make for an interesting contrast over the next couple of years – a consensus style leader in Labour, up against a John Key who has pretty much carried the entire National Party cause on his shoulders.

Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell talked to David Shearer on Friday afternoon March 2, about his views on a range of topics :

Campbell : This major speech that’s been heralded. When will it take place, and what’s its intended purpose ?

Shearer : What I wanted to be to do is to put out some thoughts about where we’re going, a bit of a vision about what I’m looking for, and where I’d like to take Labour. The idea is not have a sort of State of the Nation speech as such – but to give a series of speeches over the next three months…The first one is obviously the most important because people are looking out for it. [But] I don’t want to talk about the content just yet.

When will it take place?

The middle of March.

And the intended purpose – is to give people a foretaste of where you stand and where you see Labour going during this term?

Yes. A little bit about myself, what I see as some of the key issues, and what are some of the key issues we’re going to face if we want to be in government in 2014.

A lot of the people who once voted Labour are now self-employed, or independent contractors or in small business.* In a speech a few weeks ago, you depicted them as the people sitting at the kitchen table filling in their GST returns. Which means they may be more socially and economically conservative compared to those on the left. To win them back, what do you think Labour has to do – and just as importantly, what does it have to avoid doing?

First of all, I’m not sure they are necessarily socially conservative. But I’m also not sure they see Labour as their natural home anymore. Many of them, I should say, are people who are not earning very much. They’re working really hard, and really long hours. But possibly even earning less than a minimum hourly rate. My feeling is that these people – they’re working hard, playing by the rules – are not being heard, and certainly not by the National Party. And I would argue, they possibly don’t see us as their natural home either. What we would like to do is to bring them into Labour and say yes, we understand where you’re coming from, and we’ll try to be the party for you.

But what do they need from you, as proof you are their home?

First, we need to acknowledge the sort of things that they’re up against. That they are working really hard. That they are trying to bring up their kids in the right way. That they are playing by the rules. That they are doing all those sorts of things. Bu they don’t see the Labour Party as being the party that’s naturally, standing up for them. Wee haven’t addressed them specifically as part of our…

But apart from a “David empathises with your situation” message, what do they want practically from you to convince them that you’re part of the solution, and not part of the problem?

There’s a few things we can look at in terms of small business in how we can help. People in that sort of situation. There are some areas we’re looking at, at the moment in terms of that.

You mean, tax issues?

It might be tax issues. But it might be more in the way of regulation issues. And this is something we’re working through. I don’t think we’ve got the absolute answer –

You mean, cutting red tape?

It could be that. I think the key thing about this, is that up ‘til now, a lot of those sorts of people haven’t been given the recognition, or haven’t been listened to. If there’s one thing I’m trying to do is get out and around the place, and actually understand what their circumstances are.

Go back to the second part of the question. What does Labour have to avoid doing, in order not to repel those people? If you’re seen as primarily being the party of the disadvantaged or of beneficiaries – and while there may be darn fine social justice arguments for standing up for such people – is there a risk you may then drive away the people that you say you’re trying to reach?

You mean if we stand up for people who are disadvantaged, we might repel the others?

Yes. You might repel the middle class strugglers we were talking about.

Everybody says this to me but I don’t.. it just doesn’t convince me that somehow, one excludes the other. I can’t understand why that argument is being made. That if we go this way, we can’t go that way. My feeling is that the Labour Party has been a party that’s been a pretty broad church in the past, and there’s no reason why it can’t be a broad church in the future.

Well, lets take an example: welfare reform. Welfare reform is something that many of those middle class strugglers we’re talking about happen to support. Do you think that solo parents on the DPB should be made to work full time when their youngest child turns 14,- and part time when their youngest child is five?

I think you’ve really got to be careful about making things compulsory. There are many, many people out there by now who are – at the age that their children are now – who are saying ‘ I’ll go back to work again, for a lot of different reasons, and for a lot of economic reasons.” There are two issues here for me here – if you want someone to go back out to work again, there are at least three pre-conditions. One, they need to have the skills to be able to get work. Two, they need to have good childcare to be able to do it And three, there has to be the jobs. Now if you don’t talk about those three things, then there’s no point in talking about compulsory or optional or whatever. Those three things are essential pre-requisites. And what’s happening is that the government is talking about compulsion, of pushing people out while actually not providing the enabling part of it.

But the point is, the struggling middle class don’t want to wait for those pre-conditions to be met. They’re happy to have welfare reform now, and seem to have a striking lack of sympathy for people on the DPB. Do you oppose the DPB planks of the welfare reform process?

I don’t oppose the encouragement of getting people into work. I don’t think there’s a party in Parliament that doesn’t believe working isn’t better than being on some sort of welfare cheque, particularly for unemployed people. For DPBs its obviously slightly more difficult, in that child must come first. And for us, that’s the key issue. The other issue…is that the majority of women who are having children, who go back out to work,- and I know, because there are tons of them in my electorate here – who put their children into childcare, and are able to cope. But there is another group of people and or whatever reason – jobs, skills, adequate childcare – where they can’t do that. They don’t have that option, even if you wanted them to, or felt that was the best thing for them. So putting the child first means that – if you want to get women back into the work force – you do need those other things in place.

But in the real world in 2012, we’re going to have the government enacting a welfare policy whereby solo parents on the DPB will have to work full time once their youngest child is 14 – regardless of the state of the job market. There’s no quid pro quo I can see on the government’s reform agenda. So, will you oppose that measure?

If there are no jobs, if there is no training, if there’s no ability for somebody to get childcare then –

So that’s a yes, you will oppose it?

I would like to encourage to get people back to work whenever they…as soon as possible.

I’m trying to get past your preference, and get at what are you going to do when it hoves into view into Parliament. Are you going to vote against any measure of this sort, within that section of the welfare reform legislation?

We have to see what it looks like.

You know what it looks like. Bennett and Co. have made their intentions very clear.

I’ll say to you again : I believe people should be going back to work, or going to work – because some of them haven’t been to work – whenever that is possible for them to do that, and whenever it is in the best interests of their children. But I say again – if there is no ability to get good work, either through jobs, or through skills or through decent childcare then that’s not….

And finally, can I say that those things are of such a priority to you as a pre-condition that absent of them, you will vote against that part of the legislation ?

I want to look at the legislation before I tell you how I’m going to vote. I’m not going to be sitting here in the absence of a caucus discussion and telling you how I – or the Labour Party – are going to vote.

Tactical Priorities

Tactically is Labour’s main priority this year – and I stress” main” priority – those voters who have gone rightwards to National, or those who have gone left to the Greens ?

They’re all up for grabs. I would argue they’re opportunities. First of all we lost some to the Greens and some to New Zealand First. My sense is – and its only a sense – is that some of the vote that went that way is not solidly anti-Labour, but they were looking for another home in the last election. That [defection] is quite soft – and with the right policies and the right way that we go forward, we can get them back. But we’re looking at the Greens going from whatever it was 9 per cent to 12 or 13 per cent. So there’s four percent there and perhaps three per cent of the New Zealand First vote. And its hard to tell where the New Zealand First vote came from – whether it was from the left or from the right…

The question was about your ‘main’ priority.

We don’t have a main priority of only focussing on there, and not focussing on there.

The reason why I’m asking is that National uses its partners as its ideological outriders, which gives it more room to seem moderate by comparison. Should Labour supporters expect to see Labour operating similarly in tandem with the Greens, rather than trying to outdo them on social justice and environmental issues?

With the Greens, there is the possibility that obviously on a number of issues, we are very, very similar. There nuances between us. So it makes good sense as oppositional parties to be looking at some of these same issues, in a similar way. But we are still contesting that vote, we are not going to sit back –

I’m not suggesting abandoning it. I’m talking about relative emphasis. There could be a de facto division of work where the Greens can pursue the centre left message while Labour focusses on wooing those who have defected to the centre right.

But..why would we want to do that?

Because its crucial to becoming the next government. Perhaps because it enables you to win the swing people in the centre.

I understand what you’re saying. It was a rhetorical question. Why would we want to give up that vote on the left ?

The reason would be to avoid deterring those who you will need to become a broad spectrum government. Isn’t this a natural MMP evolution whereby the major parties focus on being the parties of the stable centre, while their more ideological partners mop up the hard left or the hard right? The job of the moderate parties being then to occupy the centre – and that means arguably, that they shouldn’t be pursuing policies that will scare off or repel the moderate centre. That’s the argument.

Yeah, I’m not so sure about that moderate centre being scared off. I guess my sense is that centre is available if we do the right things. There are two issues with that overlap with the Greens. One is, I don’t want to cede ground to the Greens. One reason is we want to the dominant party in government. Of course we do, that’s what we’re here for. That’s the competition, the contest. But we have within the Labour Party, a strong left part of our Labour Party who would be absolutely horrified to think we were giving up on that part of the Labour Party. We would certainly not. What we are saying is that we will contest, right across the spectrum.

Even if it means you just shuttle the centre left votes back and forth between yourself and the Greens?

For someone like yourself – who is, I guess, left of centre – I can see the logic. But as someone sitting here as the leader of the Labour Party who wants to maximise the percentage vote it makes complete sense to me that we want to gain as much of the percentage vote as we possibly could.

And in the pursuit of that noble quest….is there anything about the policy mix that Labour took into the last election that strikes you as now as being a liability?

First of all, there’s a bunch of policies on the table at the moment. And they stay on the table until we collectively decide to take them off. All our policies at the moment stand as they are.

And that review is a work in progress?

Absolutely. We need to look really carefully at some of the policies that we came out with, and looking…we have now an economic situation and an economic outlook that is very different than when we went into the election. The PREFU that came in October is very different than what we have now.

Right. So given the state of the books as so revealed, can you still afford to make that first $10,000 of income, tax free ?

It was $5,000. Those are exactly the things we need to look at. Looking back and in hindsight there was some feeling that one of their most pressing concerns – we know – was the state of the country’s books, and the deficit, which has blown out to be the biggest deficit in New Zealand’s history, when we were saying at the same time that yes, we will attend to that and we will bring the country back into surplus at exactly the same time as National. It was more difficult to make that argument, when we were about to give the first $5,000 of income tax free. So there was a perceptional issue that I don’t think we overcame…So that’s one issue. The second issue is that the economic growth outlook around the election strangely enough, was a whole lot rosier than it is today.

If you can’t – or won’t – give answers on some of the particular election policy issues – can you least indicate the principles on which the decisions are being made? Is the fate of the tax free policy being decided on genuine affordability, such that you have to sacrifice the social justice goal of the policy? Or are the focus groups telling you the policy is creating a problem of perception? How are you weighting your current analysis of the election promises?

I don’t want to go into each individual policy. Where we need to be in 2014, is for people to say – if the Labour Party came into power tomorrow – I would trust them to manage our economy. That has to be the end goal. They have to feel very convinced about that.

Who’s ‘they’ in that context?

The voters.

Not the corporate sector?

No, no, no. The voters. I haven’t actually asked the corporate sector…. I have asked voters. For nine years we managed the economy extremely well. Even to the point where we were being told we were being over-conservative – ironically, on the other side, by the right. We came out of 2008 – admittedly, going into a financial crisis – with the government’s books balanced. That’s the key point here. Because somehow, in three years, the National Party has become the natural party of looking after the economy in a bad time, and the Labour Party is not being as trusted on the economy. So what happened in those three years? But.we definitely need to get to the position where in 2014, we’re being seen as trusted administrators of the economy.

The short answer to your question is that Labour has never really shaken the ‘tax and spend’ stereotype. And by successfully peddling that stereotype, National has appeared to be the more responsible steward of the economy.

I think the National Party had a very consistent message. There’s no doubt about that. But they also had the advantage of the global financial crisis, the fact the earthquakes had hit and a whole bunch of other things that played to their advantage.

One of those other policies now under review will indicate where you end up on the political spectrum. That will be whether you will continue to argue that Working for Families tax credits will be available to beneficiaries, as well as to low income workers. There’s a heart answer and a head answer on that point.

Okay, the heart first. I’ve come from a position basically, where I’ve spent all my life helping people in poverty. So I’m not about to turn around and say : Labour is not going to access people in poverty. That’s the first thing. The widening gap between the rich and poor – or rather between the poor and the very rich, which is really the case –

What about the gap between the working poor and the beneficiary poor ?

There is a gap there. I’m not sure that gap is widening considerably. What I do know is that the widening gap is not only of concern to us, but is of increasing concern to New Zealanders, as a whole. How do you address that?

And what’s the ‘head’ answer ?

The tax credit to beneficiaries was one way of being able to do it. Would it have been successful? Certainly, it would have put money in the hands of beneficiary families. Is that the best way to do it? Why not a Universal Child Allowance? Why not a whole lot of things. I’m just throwing these out, I’m not making this look like that’s where we’re going. Is there a better way of being able to do it ?

You gave a quid pro quo before about people on the DPB. Are you saying that if you drop this Working for Families tax credit to beneficiaries, it would be only if there was a similar quid pro quo like a Universal Child Allowance?

We have too many kids in poverty. That for me is a blight on New Zealand.
Lifting those kids out of that poverty is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face.

So, what does that mean substantively, if you are now going to drop this policy? If you are, would you do so only if there was an equivalent measure to protect the people who would stand to be affected?

I believe you just can’t leave the situation currently as it is. Where there are – and I can’t remember the figure exactly – several hundred thousand children in poverty. It has to be a major concern of any government.[ Shearer digresses here to talk about the current government’s mooted Ministerial Inquiry into Poverty, his attempts to make it a Parliamentary wide inquiry, and the difficulties of doing so] I’m not saying that the policy is gone. What I am saying is that now we have another three years to think about it, we need to go back and have a good look and make sure that’s the right way forward. Because the one disadvantage of that policy…. is that for many people who are working, they believe it is unfair. I would also argue we didn’t get it across very well at the time. It wasn’t reported on very well, and we didn’t explain it very well before the election. It was too hurried.

Whatever you finally decide, can I get an assurance that you won’t simply be walking away from the people who stood to benefit from the policy?

That’s the point. We have to find the best way of doing it. And if there are some people who think the policy isn’t fair – and if you can’t convince them – then [the policy] becomes a bit problematic, in terms of how to help people that way.

Leader of the Opposition role

Do you see yourself as being in competition with the likes of Winston Peters – or do you currently feel more that – despite the obvious differences – that the enemy of my enemy is my friend?


Why I ask is that when the attacks by Winston Peters and Hone Harawira help to erode confidence in the government and promote a desire for change, then there’s a sense in which they’re both working for you – right ?

Look, this is something that a lot of commentators haven’t quite got, yet. They see me competing against Winston Peters. I don’t see myself competing against Winston Peters. Winston Peters – and this is no disrespect to him, I’ve got a lot of respect for him – can go out on a limb much further than we would feel comfortable about doing. By doing that, he has an impact. Now, is that growing his vote substantially to the detriment of us ? Probably not. But what we can then do is come in and provide a moderate voice into that void. And that seems to me to be a useful thing that opposition parties can do in –

That’s a perfect description of what I mentioned before – of using your potential partners as ideological outriders.

Exactly. And you’ve got it, but how come so many commentators out there think I’m in major competition with Winston Peters ? Look, we might be at the end of the year when it comes to competing for votes. But right now, there’s a difference.

When the government gets itself in trouble – as it has done this year – do you think it is sometimes better to leave them to flounder, rather than offer them an argument they can then use to counterpunch their way out of trouble?

So., who are you talking abut when you say “ they?”

When the government gets itself in a fix over asset sales or the crisis do jour, is it sometimes better, tactically, for the Leader of the Opposition to leave them to flounder, rather than jump in, become a distraction, and give them a way of counter punching their way out of the problem?

Ummm. I hope we don’t do that. (laughs) There is a balance here. There is a kind of a…New Zealand First can go a bit further than we can. There’s a risk that if we’re not seen to be part of the debate, then we’re not seen. And that’s a really big issue. Its an issue I’ve got to try and combat because in many ways in our party what I’m trying to do myself personally…(pauses) We’ve got some really able people working hard at getting some issues up, and what I don’t want to do is be the dog that barks at every passing car, and particularly that barks at the issue they’re running.

But….You can’t treat that as a license to under-achieve ?

Absolutely. And that’s the challenge…

OK. Is this why earlier in the year, you kept your mouth shut over the ports of Auckland dispute and the Affco lockout?

No. I mean… over ports of Auckland I didn’t keep my mouth shut, actually. Every time I was asked I commented. I never once turned down an interview.

Isn’t that revealing though? You waited until you were asked…

No. Because….for a couple of reasons. First of all, there was nothing I could do to resolve the issue. Absolutely nothing. I mean, I could wade in and call people a whole bunch of names if I wanted to. But I didn’t. I’ve spoken to every single party in that dispute at least twice, three times. Was down at the ports last Sunday. I spoke to Tony Gibson on the phone afterwards. I went and saw Len Brown last week. I actually think we’ve got [MPs] Darien Fenton and Phil Twyford who’ve been very actively following it, and Andrew Little. I actually think…and this is the real reason for not just getting out there and banging a drum and sounding loud, that I actually think we could do more harm than we could do good.

Because…for the government it would be better for them to be able to say, here we have the likes of the 1951 waterfront dispute, all over again ?

Well, its partly about positioning, but its mostly about the reality of what you can actually do in this sort of situation. If you can gently persuade – well, not gently, some of it has actually been a little bit harsh – people to come to the table, then that would be a good role for me to play.

Economic Policy

In the late 1990s, even the business community finally came to Labour and gave it donations because the centre right had plainly run out of ideas about how to promote economic growth. Do you have any concern that Labour’s support for a comprehensive capital gains tax could be a road block to that happening again?

You mean…from the corporate sector?

Yes. The business community could look at the Shipley/Bolger government and see that those guys had run out of gas. Labour, back then, may have seemed a better bet. But this time – holy cow ! – Labour is touting a comprehensive capital gains tax. So, they might well decide not to open their wallets to support that.

That’s interesting isn’t it. Because a lot of people in the business community think that a capital gains tax is the way to go. And the right way for New Zealand in terms of being able to shift our investment from speculative investment, into productive investment.

More than just Gareth Morgan?

Oh yeah. When you go round and talk to people. Now, they may not necessarily like it because it may be going to hit them some of them. Small and medium businesses in particular might feel that way as well. But many of the people I’ve spoken to would agree deep down, that this is a good way of being able to shift money into investment, and away from speculation.

Arguably, balancing the books has become something of a fetish, and an end in itself. One that’s being pursued almost solely by cutting back on government spending. National won’t address the revenue side of the equation. Is Labour, though, just as opposed to generating revenue via an increase in income tax and corporate tax?

What I believe –with David Parker – is about where we want to be..I think you’re right, National want to talk only about cutting government expenditure – and that’s an important thing to do, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t talk about growing the economy with government, in a sense, helping that process. Its ‘ hands off” with the rest of it. But in a small economy like New Zealand, the government actually can play a real part in developing an economy. Our economy is still probably pretty similar to the way it was in the 1960s in terms of our division between primary products, and things like manufacturing and IT and things like that.

Rod Oram is always banging on that the fundamental structure of the economy hasn’t changed, from our reliance on primary products.

If there is one thing that I will absolutely stand by, in concrete, is the need to grow that other part of the economy. The Rod Oram/Paul Callaghan argument ? Well, Callaghan advocates that you grow the IT sector and get into niches and you develop the high value, high quality niches and we will be able to grow the economy. That’s fine, but it takes a hell of a lot of time. Its good, and I’m not saying its not the right way to go. But what Rod Oram would say is that if you can add 2-3 percent growth through added value with our primary products then you also get a big hit. Essentially…you do both. We will put whatever it takes in place to be able to grow that economy.

Obviously then you’re talking abut a more active role for government, as a partner to business ?

In growing the economy? Absolutely.

People like Bernard Hickey are saying that the rebuild of Christchurch offers a golden opportunity to train and employ the young unemployed. Is that an example of what you might have in mind?

Yes. We should be moving into the area with post-war haste. Instead of kind of hands off, [Adam] Smithian type of values. Which will actually get us nowhere. Because what will happen right now there is actually no real demand for construction work. Because the rebuild hasn’t really started in earnest. They’re still knocking buildings down in the centre of Christchurch. Here in Auckland, our population has grown, but our housing stock I think has grown at less than half that rate.

Yes, Auckland has seen some 64% of the population growth and only 25% of the building consents in the past five years.

Then we’ve got leaky buildings, which in a sense have run over the top of that, again. So we know that there is this extraordinary bubble coming down the track and what we are going to end up doing is employing Irish plumbers and Filipino plasterers. That’s effectively what’s going to happen.

Why do you think the middle class here has become so opposed to higher increases to fund a more egalitarian society? How and when do you think the centre left lost that argument?

I’m not sure its lost it. I don’t think we’ve had the proper discussion about it. We put a lot of the discussion into the Tax Working Group which – obviously – came up with what you’d expect. You look across to Australia where they’ve got a 45% top tax rate, and you look to the Scandinavian countries which I would argue – are the small countries we would want to emulate. Singapore. Switzerland is a bit of an exception…but what we need to do is have a really good look at what is going to bring about what we need. The capital gains tax is an example. We re-factored the economy in terms of what will bring about the greatest growth. One thing Labour has been unfairly tagged with and that we have to shake is that we are “pie-dividers’ rather than “pie-growers.” We can’t allow ourselves to be put in that situation.

But the reality you face is that a large part of the middle class thinks that any further downward –redistribution would be unfair, and that’s because the relatively poor are perceived by them as not pulling their weight. Its a part of the harder, meaner society we have inherited. Can and should Labour be trying to change that perception?

Well I think people are actually a bit contradictory on that. One the one hand they don’t actually like the idea of a hugely unequal society – but on the other hand, they don’t like the…there is that that tendency…(pauses)

For handouts for the poor not to be widely supported?

I would argue and that is one of the things we pushed in the last election was a $15 minimum wage. Now, I’ve just been talking to a bunch of people about the rest home workers who are earning $13.61 and are about to get a one per cent increase. They’re the most unregulated environment in terms of their ability to get work. So they’re doing a 5 hour shift here and a 12 hour shift there and then they’re called back – this is casualisation in a sense at its worst. That one per cent is being offered by Oceania which is an Australian operation that ships its profits out of New Zealand. On top of all that, those workers are looking after the most precious thing to us, which is our families. Now, figure that. I don’t get it. But those people I’ll go into bat for. Because I actually think those people deserve a much better break than they’re getting.

And that’s the sort of thing in New Zealand…these people are working hard, playing by the rules. I mean – how do you get a mortgage when you don’t actually know how much you’re going to earn each week? How do you go to the bank and say – well, sometimes I get a 12 hour shift, and sometimes I get a five hour shift! The issue about that, and the thing that pisses me off more than anything else is that most New Zealanders don’t know that situation exists.

In my electorate here which has, literally three blocks up the road, $2 million properties while down the road there are three families living on a section with half the family living in a converted garage. Which is bloody cold in the wintertime, I can tell you. And people don’t know that exists. I actually believe New Zealand people are among the fairest people in the world. You only have to watch New Zealand peace-keepers in operation to realise they’ve got a kind of nose for fairness that you would never be able to see in any other place. And if New Zealanders are confronted with people in need, they’re extraordinarily generous. But right now…we are talking past each other, really.

MMP Review

What’s Labour’s diagnosis of MMP, and what is the top priority for change you’ll be pushing for in the MMP review ?

We haven’t finalised policies…But there are two issues personally that I will be chucking into the mix, with caucus. The big outstanding one is one party obviously wins an electorate and then can bring in four other MPs. On the basis of their percentage of the vote, into Parliament. I think that’s an anomaly which has to go.

Should it go in the context of lowering the 5% threshold ?

It might.. Look, if the threshold is –

Personally, you’d be more in favour of a 4% threshold?

I think if the electorate seat [provision] went, then 4% would.. Look, I’d like to have a look at it, to be perfectly honest. Because I also spent 4 and half years living in Jerusalem where I saw a Knesset absolutely and utterly …(he laughs and shrugs)

Not many people here are arguing for a 1% threshold

No, I think they [the Israelis] took it up to 2% in the end. It just got so ridiculous. With 1% here, the Marijuana Party would be in Parliament.

So where did you get to on that – are you saying that personally you would support a 4% threshold, in the context of a trade-off with the loss of that added MPs electorate provision?

I’d like to look at it seriously, and I’d like to think through the implications.

One thing coming down the pike with the MMP review stands to affect smaller, list-only parties. Such parties often use their strongest, most high profile MPs to harvest votes in the electorates. For that reason, will Labour oppose any reform of MMP that rules out a losing candidate in the electorate from entering Parliament on the list?

I haven’t thought about that issue before, actually, to be honest with you.

Obviously, it would affect a party like the Greens. Part of the Greens’ vote tally is dependent on being able to use their high profile MPs out in the electorates, for party list purposes. They wouldn’t be able to do that if people who lost in the electorates couldn’t come in on the list.

Yeah, I would be doubtful.. I’d want to think twice about that, actually. For the simple reason that I know David Clendon of the Greens stood against me here. And he campaigned on a party vote, and he did well. One of the reasons he stood was that when you go, for example, for a public meeting where the candidates are up, he wouldn’t have been able to get into those public meetings if he wasn’t standing. So I think there’s a quid pro quo there that I would want to think through before I sort of agreed with [barring] that [possibility.]

Surely it’s a no brainer List parties should be allowed to run their MPs as vote-catching machines in electorates.

That’s the whole point, that’s the advantage they have.

Is it a principle you feel is worth supporting?

Yeah, I don’t..(pauses.) Again, I’d like to think it through. But I don’t really see a major problem if a high profile MP…Michael Cullen might have wanted to stand in a particular area to bring something up, and would we have wanted to lose Michael Cullen? No. And therefore, we can’t stand him in as a candidate in an electorate? That doesn’t seem sensible and yet, he was a list MP..over the last two or three elections.

Foreign Policy

China is now New Zealand’s biggest export market [Correction : it is our biggest source of imports. It is our fastest growing and second biggest export market.] In your view, should we have any concern about China’s military potential in the South Pacific ?

This is a really interesting question. And it really speaks to the difference in attitude between say, an Australian perception of the Pacific and a New Zealand perspective of the Pacific. Our perception and it is certainly mine, is that you’re independent, you’re non-aligned, you’re non-threatening and essentially you develop by relationships. And you establish those links through a solid and a good relationship. I’m not particularly worried about China extending its influence in the Pacific. I haven’t seen it aggressively going in the Pacific. I know the Americans feel concerned about it.

Well, there’s an argument for pursuing a two track policy with China. We embrace them on trade, while being on guard against any potential expansionist ambitions they may have in the South Pacific. Our friends in Australia and America certainly see it in that light

Of course, we have to be careful in the way we look at it. We see how they’re expanding perhaps in the Pacific for example, and I don’t know, in Fiji perhaps. And into Africa. I’ve seen it. There’s been a massive amount of investment. Oddly enough, there is a certain kind of resistance that’s built up in Africa as well..There‘s an evolution of that expansionism –

So what’s the response? I’m assuming you don’t share the full blown paranoia evident in the Australian Defence White Paper a couple of years ago. If New Zealand doesn’t share that particular extreme view, what more should we be doing to be at least effectively on guard against China’s ambitions in the South Pacific ?

We don’t have too many arrows in our quiver as New Zealanders on this one, you know. We have a really good relationship and a pretty open relationship too, to be honest with you, from what I’ve observed when I’ve been in various meetings. And a pretty honest and straight up one. That’s basically the only arrow we’ve got in our quiver.

You mean…so far, so good ?

Yeah, I think so. I don’t see any overt signs of Chinese imperialism sweeping across the South Pacific. Of course they’re going to have relationships with countries with which they didn’t have relationships before. If I was China…it would be incomprehensible if you didn’t.

So the argument would be – this is just a process of learning to live with China becoming a global superpower and its [military] potential just comes with the territory ?

We’ve lived in a bipolar world before. I would argue this is a much more benign polar position than we had before.

Under Helen Clark, Labour opposed and didn’t overtly join a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, in order to remove its alleged weapons of mass destruction. Do you think the worst case scenario on Iran – that it may eventually become a nuclear armed state – would justify a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear facilities?


So, would Labour’s position be that it would only lend support to any pre-emptive military action of that sort, if it had a strong UN mandate?

The UN would have to be a pre-condition, and I would argue that even then if it was a pre-condition you’d be …(pauses) After working in the Middle East, I have a quite different perspective on it. So it would have to be.(pauses) Without any UN mandate it would be inconceivable, put it that way.

Because all the spooks are banging away about the need for a pre-emptive attack, and one timed to catch Obama in a weakened position, before the US election.

My own feeling is that Iran has some serious problems about its democracy and human rights and that sort of thing. Its rhetoric is inflammatory and creates more problems than it solves but a lot of the time the rhetoric is actually for a Shia, and internally Iranian, audience. You look at Iran and where it is : Iraq on one side of it was invaded by the United States, and Afghanistan on the other side, also invaded by the United States. And if you were Iran sitting in the middle and looking across at the new found respect North Korea had….and I’m not in any way supporting the proliferation of nuclear arms… [At this point, Shearer asks to go off the record and chooses not to add anything further on this topic, beyond a call for engagement, rather than sabre rattling.]

Because the argument would be that if the world has learned to live with a nuclear armed Pakistan, it could possibly do the same with the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran, Although… that’s not desirable.

No, its certainly not desirable. And if you attacked Iran what would the consequences be? I just hate to think.


Tactically over the next few months, how do you propose to exploit the government’s current weakness – by general agreement, it has had a pretty appalling start to its second term.

We have to attack where the government wants to go. Certainly, on the economic side of things if we take that as an example. I believe that its real weakness – and I really truly believe this – is that there is no plan for expanding the economy. What we’ve ended up doing is trying to sell assets, as an excuse for a plan. And that is supposed to fund our expansion of infrastructure, or whatever it is going to be spent on, we actually don’t know. It’s a bit of everything, according to John Key.

And it will address our social deficit with the money, at the same time.

Absolutely. That leaves you with precisely nothing. If we are able to run that line then I think it will undermine the government’s ability to be an economically credible government. What we have to do at the same time is run parallel with that, and make sure that we are economically credible and that we are responsible and people can see us as managers of an economy in 2014.

And is part of that message a commitment to not doing anything to frighten the horses unduly?

I don’t know about not being frightening….What we need to do is to make sure to project –

A message of moderation?

I think so. We have to be able to stand up and say yes, we can see where Labour is going, and yes, we can see in addition to being thrifty – my Finance spokesperson talks about a flinty, thrifty finance approach – that we can use the government effectively to grow the economy. Then we’ve got the balance about right. At the moment, I think [the government] is only talking about one side of the ledger.

Which leaves the public in the middle – between compassionate conservatives on one hand, and hard arsed, flinty liberals on the other.

Oh God, is that the only two choices? What about compassionate, hard arsed liberals? What about compassionate liberals?

  • Hat tip to Chris Trotter for pinpointing that passage in Shearer’s recent Grey Power speech.