OPINION: When David Shearer became Labour leader at the end of last year, he touted himself as a fresh face for the party and promised a "fresh vision for New Zealand". So far, his face has barely been seen by most of the voting public and his vision, if there is one, remains hidden from view.
More than two months after he took over from Phil Goff after Labour's disastrous election defeat, Mr Shearer is yet to give any meaningful indication of what he stands for, what his aspirations for New Zealand are and what he would do differently from Prime Minister John Key to achieve them. Mr Shearer is in danger of wasting the honeymoon traditionally enjoyed by new party leaders unless he starts espousing his vision and policies to back it before much more of the parliamentary year ticks away.
The difference between Mr Shearer's first weeks as Opposition leader and Mr Key's could not be more stark. When Mr Key won the National leadership at the end of 2006, he immediately drew a line between himself and Don Brash, whom he replaced, by promising to keep New Zealand nuclear-free, signing up to international efforts to combat climate change (Dr Brash had at best been equivocal on both matters) and heralding a more measured approach to race relations.
By contrast, Mr Shearer has yet to tell voters in any great detail how, if at all, a David Shearer-led Labour Party is different to the one under Mr Goff. His stated vision of a "clean, green and clever New Zealand" is so platitudinous as to be almost meaningless. It would have some resonance if Mr Key was advocating a dirty, polluted, dumb New Zealand, but he is not, and nor is anyone else.
Mr Shearer needs more than a slogan to make a real impact in what is after all a contest of ideas. Where does he stand, for example, on Labour's promise to extend the in-work tax credit to beneficiaries, a reckless policy that undermined the party's claims to fiscal responsibility and which alienated many of the workers it claims to represent? Or the plans to remove GST on fresh fruit and vegetables, introduce a capital gains tax and raise the age of retirement?
Of course, sifting through the wreckage of Labour's defeat last year and considering, refining and announcing any policy changes was always going to take time. Mr Shearer, who was elected as leader after less than 2 1/2 years as an MP and who remains largely unknown to most of Labour's rank-and-file, was also going to need more time than a more experienced hand to settle in. That should not have prevented him, however, from starting to stamp his mark on the party by now.
Labour and Mr Shearer will have taken some heart from the weekend's 3 News-Reid Research poll, which had him debuting at 10.1 per cent in the preferred prime minister stakes – higher than Mr Goff ever achieved. Mr Shearer's near-invisibility makes it difficult to escape the conclusion, however, that the rating is much to do with the simple fact he is not Phil Goff. If Mr Shearer wants any chance of giving Mr Key a run for his money in 2014, he must offer voters much more than that.