OPINION: When Labour Party members gather in Auckland tonight for the opening of their annual conference, the one topic on everyone's lips will be the one topic that is not on the agenda paper: David Shearer's leadership.
Mr Shearer is almost unanimously acclaimed as a decent bloke. Even the prime minister has described him as "nice". He is intelligent, principled and has devoted much of his adult life to delivering aid to war torn parts of the globe. Were international aid as important to Kiwis as the economy, he would probably have made as big an impact in his first few months as Opposition leader as former currency trader John Key did when he succeeded Don Brash. Aid is a topic about which he can speak with unparalleled authority.
Unfortunately for Mr Shearer, voters do not judge politicians on their command of aid, but topics closer to home.
To say Mr Shearer's first 11 months in the job have been underwhelming is an understatement. Confronted by television cameras and microphones, he is rendered incoherent unless he has previously learnt his lines, no one has got a clue what Labour stands for and his senior MPs are being allowed to idle away their days. It is no surprise, therefore, that supporters of defeated leadership candidate David Cunliffe continue to agitate on his behalf, or that Mr Cunliffe continues to make pronouncements that fuel speculation about his intentions.
Were he as strong a candidate as his backers believe, the party would not be consumed by rumour and speculation. The experiment with Mr Shearer would already have been consigned to history.
However, a significant proportion of the Labour caucus distrust Mr Cunliffe for reasons that have something to do with his ego and his judgment but have never been made entirely clear. He was a more than competent minister.
Similar doubts cloud the credentials of the other obvious candidates for the job – Grant Robertson and Andrew Little.
Mr Robertson, Mr Shearer's deputy, is a shrewd operator, but he is a "beltway" politician – known to those in the political loop, but unknown to those outside it.
Mr Little, the former president of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, came to Parliament with a big reputation, but his failure last year to trouble the National incumbent in the New Plymouth electorate previously held for 15 years by Labour's Harry Duynhoven suggests he has much to learn about politics outside the union halls.
The choice for Labour is between a green leader who is struggling, a proven ministerial performer who is disliked by his colleagues and two unknown quantities.
In the circumstances, the best course is to do nothing, until Mr Cunliffe wins the trust of his colleagues or one or the other of Mr Shearer, Mr Robertson or Mr Little articulates a vision that voters can buy into.
The gloss is wearing off Mr Key's government, but Labour is not ready to take over.
- The Dominion Post