Rookie Shearer hedges his bets

16:00, Mar 16 2012

We might know more about Labour leader David Shearer today than we did before his long-delayed "state of the nation" speech this week. But the most revealing aspect of the speech was not what it told us about him but what it told us about Labour's strategy for the next three years. And it looks a lot like the one that got National elected in 2008.

Like National, Labour has elected a leader who is inherently likeable, carries no political baggage and who has spent so little time in Parliament that he looks, acts and speaks much more like the rest of us than the career politicos who have been honing their soundbites and hanging out at Bellamy's restaurant for 20 years.

Like John Key, Mr Shearer has turned this to his advantage by promising to turn his back on ideology in favour of "doing what works" - something longer-serving politicians have a problem doing because it would make a lie of their previous utterances.

And like Mr Key, he intends using that advantage to reshape the look of the party, including abandoning those policies over which Labour has already lost the argument, so it has more room to champion the ones that count.

In National's case that meant swallowing so many dead rats over policies such as interest-free student loans, working for families and KiwiSaver that the major criticism in 2008 was that it looked like Labour-lite. Will Labour be National-lite in 2014?

In Mr Shearer's case the first skittle down is the $5000 tax-free band. It is likely to be followed by the fresh fruit and vege GST exemption, and extending Working for Families credits to beneficiaries. He has already ruled out reversing National's public service cuts.

But in what was billed as his first "major" speech this week, the shift under Mr Shearer has so far been subtle, rather than revolutionary. He promised bold action in government but was timid about the detail. He emphasised a shift toward policies promoting a cleaner, greener, smarter New Zealand but gave few clues about how to get there; he talked about taking on "bad teachers", which implied a battle with the teacher unions, but without committing to specifics; and he hinted at a harder line on welfare, which does at least help explain Labour's relative silence on the Government's DPB and welfare reforms.

As a first outing, it was a far more tentative offering than that of the rookie Mr Key back in 2006. That is surprising, given that Mr Shearer has waited several months to start putting stakes in the ground. Contrast that with Mr Key, whose first speech within days of becoming leader signalled a dramatic shift from National's direction under Don Brash. In that speech, Mr Key rejected Dr Brash's insistence on the traditional nuclear family - mum, dad and the kids - as the measure of "mainstream" New Zealand; he celebrated the status of Maori as tangata whenua; and he acknowledged the threat of global warming.

If that doesn't sound so heretical now, it was back then in front of a National Party whose ranks had only recently been swelled by the return of conservative voters wooed back by Dr Brash's hard line against Maori and young solo mums. Mr Key also wasted little time ridding the party of its "pro-nuke" millstone, by committing to New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance.

The contrast between the two speeches underscores the relative strength of Mr Key's position in 2006 against Mr Shearer's in 2012.

Mr Key started with three big advantages - he is a naturally gifted politician; the grassroots and the caucus were overwhelmingly behind him; and he timed his leadership tilt perfectly. The tide was well and truly going out on the third-term Labour government.

Mr Shearer has maybe only one of those factors in his favour. He is not a naturally gifted politician - there are shades of Dr Brash in his stumbling at press conferences. In Mr Shearer's case, that problem most likely stems from the second factor - which is that it is still not clear whether he has the support of the grassroots activists, even if he has the support of the caucus. That has made him overly cautious about getting out ahead of the party and worried about going "off message". He is apparently being warned by party strategists not to get "locked in" to policy positions. He is willing to use his authority - peeling back policies like the $5000 tax-free band is a sign of that - he is going about it more cautiously than Mr Key.

But the third factor, timing, might be in his favour. National is facing its second-term blues surprisingly early. The sound of squealing brakes over opening up accident compensation to competition from private insurers is the most obvious sign that it is starting to get the jitters over the number of fires it has to fight on different fronts. Comments by ACC Minister Judith Collins to Fairfax, suggesting she believes in finding a way through that is likely to find broader consensus, make it clear that the Government, with a bruising stoush over asset sales ahead and facing a push back over public service cuts, has decided to pick its other fights carefully in coming months.

Helen Clark's government had a severe case of the second-term blues as well, of course - the foreshore and seabed carved a big fissure through 2004 - but it squeaked back for a third term.

Mr Key's problem, increasingly, is that the numbers don't stack up in his favour. He can only win if National remains incredibly popular. He could lose even if Labour isn't as popular. If the Greens hold their support and NZ First gets stronger, not weaker, Labour only has to pick up a few percentage points and Mr Shearer will be in the running to lead the next government.

Labour can move in one or two directions in order to pick up those extra votes - to the Left, and rob the Greens, which doesn't make a lot of sense, or back to the centre, and rob votes back off National, which is where Mr Shearer plans to take it. That will mean minimising the differences with National over policies that resonate with voters in that crowded centre ground.

The big gamble in the strategy, of course, is that it turns the contest into one about leadership, rather than policy. And on that front, Mr Shearer remains an unknown quantity to most voters. He has the advantage for now  voters are open to learning more about him and prepared to judge him favourably if they like what they see. He didn't blow his opportunity on Thursday - but neither did he grab it by the throat. And the bar will be set a lot higher for the next three speeches.