Shearer in a sticky position
Given that a few months ago there was every sign that David Shearer may have been gone by Christmas, he can count his survival into the new year as a minor achievement in itself.
The recent dispatch of his only rival – David Cunliffe – to the back benches has also bought Shearer more time to establish his credentials as an alternative Prime Minister. Certainly, time is on his side. Two years remain for the inevitable disenchantment with the country’s current leadership to fester, before the voters need to make a choice.
By then, the beneficiary of the Anyone But Cunliffe faction within his own party might get lucky again – if and when an Anyone But Key mood spreads further among the nation at large.
Shearer remains a mystery to most New Zealanders.
What they’ve seen so far has been a seemingly decent, inarticulate fellow who believes in a fair go, that hard work should be rewarded and that all New Zea- land families should live in warm, dry houses.
Nothing scary about that, or memorable, but not exactly prime ministerial material just yet.
So far, Shearer’s main accomplishment has been to punish a phantom challenge – from Cunliffe – so severely that it has deprived Labour of its most talented front bench performer.
In direct combat, Shearer hasn’t yet laid a glove on the government, or its leader.
During 2013 Labour will also have to compete with the Greens, the coalition partner they require to form a future government.
On one hand, Labour and the Greens have to function as allies against the common foe, which is the Key government and its asset sales programme.
On the other hand, Labour and the Greens are rivals for the same centre-left vote.
If it is to keep the Greens relegated to a subservient role in any future administration, Labour somehow has to ensure that the Greens don’t settle in sustaina- bly above the 15 per cent barrier of support.
One difficulty for Shearer is that on the economy in particular, Greens co-leader Russel Norman is a far more articulate and quick-footed performer. So much so that during 2012, Shearer’s minders tended to steer their man away from television shows on which Norman was also booked to appear.
During November, this underlying tension was illustrated when Norman made a bold claim for the finance role in the next government – only to be slapped down by Shearer, who said David Parker would be getting that job.
That’s Shearer’s basic dilemma. He needs the Greens to govern, but the Labour position is that the Greens must be a subservient and obedient partner, lest the duo should scare the corporate establishment to whom Labour is trying to portray itself as being a safe bet.
Can Shearer simultaneously credibly present himself to voters as the leader of a boldly centre-left party, and do business as a reliable steward of the status quo?
For now, the fuzzy perception of Shearer does currently enable him to be all things to everyone.