Shearer's last chance to impress
Just short of his first anniversary as leader, David Shearer delivers his first speech to a Labour Party conference next week.
But as storm clouds gather over his leadership, it is shaping as possibly his last.
Members, activists and unionists contacted for this article said over and over that the speech at the Ellerslie racecourse conference centre next Sunday was crucial to Shearer's grip on the leadership.
His first priority is to convince the party rank and file that "he has what it takes" - and those grassroots members will be looking for a hard-hitting address taking the fight to the Government while outlining a clear and personal view of where he intends to take Labour.
Unless he can carry that off, the groundswell in the party is set to break into the open with a push for a leadership challenge, most likely when the caucus meets in February - or even sooner, according to one business lobbyist in close contact with the party.
While no heir apparent has emerged - the same issue that kept his predecessor Phil Goff safe through Labour's dark days from 2008 to 2011 - the party would look again at David Cunliffe, deputy Grant Robertson and potentially others if Shearer continued to disappoint.
For his part, Shearer is upbeat, rejecting talk of a challenge and describing his upcoming speech as "a huge opportunity".
It would be the first time he has been able to have the party membership in one place, and put forward his view of where the party and the country needed to go.
"Up to now when I have made speeches it's been sometimes reported on, sometimes not. This is a real opportunity to have it watched, people pick up on it and people will be able to report on it and communicate that to New Zealanders at large."
His plan would see a more interventionist role for the state, "but not big government and spending more". His government would be willing "to do its bit" by using the tools available to it - as Labour had already shown with its plans for a capital gains tax, lifting the pension age and revamping monetary policy.
Posts on the Labour-leaning Standard blog and pressure from commentators like Chris Trotter - fuelled by speeches and interviews by Cunliffe - have bagged Shearer and backed his main rival. But he insists, picking up the language of the reporter's question, that criticism and talk of a leadership spill is just "gossip".
He takes no notice of it and does not read the blogs, and anyway, it is not the impression he gains during trips around the country.
"I believe I have very strong views. I am very value-driven as a politician."
He had lived those values of "opportunity, fairness and giving people a fair go. It has been about service to people. It is the same values I bring into the leadership."
Yet even among his supporters, it is hard to find anyone who will say unequivocally that he is doing an outstanding job.
Usually it is more guarded. "OK", "getting better", or "not bad" rather than fist-pumping enthusiasm.
So how strong is the mood for change, and will next week's conference bring it to a head?
According to a senior MP, who backed Shearer in last year's leadership vote, most inside Labour are withholding judgment until they see his performance at the conference.
But there is wide agreement Labour and Shearer will not be able to avoid a focus on his performance, not least because key business at the Ellerslie conference centre includes a revamp of party rules.
At issue is how candidates are chosen and ranked on the list - a potentiality explosive matter inside the party given the power of its union and sector group blocks.
But delegates will also vote to give unions and members a say in leadership votes. That has previously been the sole preserve of MPs in the caucus.
The draft proposal would require a two-thirds majority of MPs to trigger a leadership vote - a move that would be seen as entrenching the leader between general elections.
A rival option - to put the leadership to a vote if 40 per cent of MPs call for it - is seen as too destabilising and the party is likely to settle on the compromise of a 55 per cent threshold.
If for no other reason, that will bring Shearer's leadership to centre stage.
A well-connected Labour member, outside the caucus, agreed the conference would be about Shearer "whether we like it or not".
"The speech is very important to him," she said.
He needed to connect with the membership, which backed Cunliffe after last year's leadership "primaries".
If he did not win them over, he would remain vulnerable, and the media would be scouring the room checking for signs that Cunliffe's loyalists were on the warpath.
A runoff, if caucus put the leadership on the line in February, would spark a two-month public campaign that would expose the party's fault lines all over again and potentially do more harm than good. It is a step the party is unlikely to take lightly, but it cannot be ruled out.
"One argument is that if we change leaders we will lose. Well, we are losing," she said.
Her argument, echoed by others, is that Shearer promised change but had not yet delivered.
A highly placed party source said: "He needs to deliver a gutsy speech. We just want to see him lead. Discipline someone [such as MP Shane Jones] without being too cautious. Take a position on JT [former Cabinet minister John Tamihere] coming back. Make a leadership speech, not just a policy speech."
If he bombed at the conference, the focus would shift to his speeches early in the new year - when he has promised a state-of-the-nation-style speech - including at Waitangi ahead of that all-important first caucus of 2013.
"Then the party will be asking how many more opportunities there will be for him to go up."
Left-wing commentator and 2011 Labour candidate Josie Pagani is blunter.
"He's got everything to gain and everything to lose from this speech."
She believes he needs to be more "muscular" and set out his thinking in a way that clearly differentiates him from predecessors Helen Clark and Phil Goff.
POPULAR, BUT . . .
Shearer's main problem is not that he is divisive or that he has made enemies in the caucus. In fact he is universally liked and respected.
But he has failed badly as a communicator during a year when National has faced huge head-winds and when the gloss has come off Prime Minister John Key's image.
The opportunities read like a shopping list for an Opposition leader to choose from.
There have been Key's "brain fades" and verbal gaffes - one of the latest his insult aimed at international football superstar David Beckham.
The Maori water rights claim is still wending its way through the courts, forcing a postponement of the asset sales programme - a key element in the Government's economic policy - at the same time as doubts grow over the prospects of achieving promised Budget surplus in 2014-15.
Only this week the unemployment rate jumped unexpectedly to 7.3 per cent, a level not seen since 1999.
Education Minister Hekia Parata and her ministry have made a hash of the class sizes debate, school closures in Christchurch and the Novopay teacher pay system.
There have been privacy breaches or leaks at Social Development, Foreign Affairs and Trade and ACC.
It ought to have been mana from political heaven for the Opposition, yet any rise in Labour's poll rating has been glacial.
At this stage few outside the Left-wing commentariat are prepared to openly destabilise Shearer.
But there is little hiding the concern among the party's backers.
"What could have been a really bad year for the Government has seen nothing change. There is a loss of confidence - a sense of what might have been," a long-serving union official said.
For his part, former Labour president and political commentator Mike Williams does not sense a coup is building, but says Shearer has made only "an average start".
"He needs a cracker of a speech, because with the activists he starts behind the 8-ball."
Though Shearer is hinting at a significant policy announcement in his keynote speech on Sunday, Williams thinks he would be advised to keep his policy powder dry until closer to the election.
"You don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes."
He blames Shearer's "minders" for the Labour leader being comprehensively "flipped" by the Government's spin machine over the alleged taping of Key's speech to the Government Communications and Security Bureau (GCSB).
That turned what should have been an embarrassing issue for Key into a problem for Shearer because he pushed too hard with no hard evidence.
"That would never have got past [Helen Clark's former minder and chief of staff] Heather Simpson," Williams says.
But for all the issues with Shearer, he rules out a challenge in the near future, though with the cryptic proviso that according to an old adage: "There's a field marshal's baton in every corporal's pack."
THE MESSAGE IS ONLY MEDIUM
Perhaps the most glaringly obvious problem for Shearer is his handling of press conferences - an everyday reality when Parliament is sitting - something he himself accepts. He frequently gabbles and seems unsure of his ground, giving equivocal answers rather than clear sound bites, and they dominate his image on the evening bulletins.
Who can ever forget: "I do not believe I am not, not connecting."
Shearer says his public face is a work in progress. "I'm not slick, but I'm genuine. There are areas around presentation I agree I can sharpen up on, and I'm working on that."
But he argues that in the fight with National he is making ground.
He has closed the gap from 20 points; National's 47 per cent to Labour's 27 per cent on last year's election day; to about 12 percentage points now. And he was not concerned about his personal popularity rating of 11 per cent in the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll.
"The Government's coming from a very high point and it takes time to dent that and make those changes, these things don't happen overnight."
But as Opposition leader he is barely outpacing his rivals - another concern for Labour as it fishes in a crowded pool for anti-government votes. The same poll asked who was the most effective and Shearer edged Winston Peters by 25 to 24 per cent - and Green co-leader Russel Norman was not far behind.
THE ACCIDENTAL PM?
Criticisms of Shearer - and any loose talks about coups - are to some extent muted by the slim margin of safety delivered to the Government by MMP politics.
Despite its huge party vote, National leads a centre-Right block with only a one-seat majority, boosted on confidence and supply by the Maori Party's three seats.
It would take little shift in public opinion to change that, and on many recent polls the combined Labour-Green vote could form a government if NZ First and/or the Maori Party could be persuaded to back it.
That close electoral arithmetic means his closest allies, the Greens, take a more sanguine view than many in Labour, and do not rule out Shearer being catapulted into the Beehive in 2014.
A good personal relationship between co-leader Norman and Shearer was a sound basis for a government in waiting, a Green spokesman said.
While a stronger Labour vote was crucial to victory for the Greens in 2014, Shearer was only a year into the job. "It's not time to press the panic button".
However, some soul searching on how to improve was needed, and that should include a tune-up for the front bench as well as "cracking a firmer whip" where his MPs showed disloyalty.
Shearer confirmed this week he was planning a reshuffle, though beyond confirming David Parker as finance spokesman he would not indicate where changes might be made.
He said some MPs were "working hard and shining" and he wanted to take advantage of their talents to put up the best team. That is unlikely to include list MP Shane Jones, however.
His future is still under a cloud pending an attorney-general's report into his handling of the Bill Liu immigration saga.
He may not even be at the conference in any case, but at a "rival" event.
Jones is apparently on the guest list, along with Pagani and her husband, John - a former Shearer adviser - at the wedding of former Shearer chief of staff Stuart Nash next weekend.
In the 1990s the cry was "barbecue at Phil's place" when it was rumoured those on the outer with Clark were meeting to plot at Goff's house.
"Wedding at Stuart's place" anyone?
The Dominion Post