The world according to David Shearer

16:00, Dec 16 2011
David Shearer
LABOUR LEADER: David Shearer.

After barely two and a half years as an MP David Shearer was catapulted into the leadership of the Labour party this week. His history as an aid worker, including gongs for bravery, has been splashed across the headlines. But Fairfax Media's political team set out to fill in the gaps by talking to the man, his former teachers and friends and those who worked with him in some of the world's worst trouble spots.

Limits are David James Shearer's enemy. He hates ties, long meetings and bureaucracy. He is not a fan of fences either; whether they be in the West Bank or suburban Auckland.

All of which makes you wonder why the Mt Albert MP and newly minted Labour leader chose politics.

"It's my mantra. A meeting that goes longer than an hour is a failure. I may have to moderate that view in this environment. And I hate ties," Mr Shearer says on his first day in the Opposition leader's office, bare walls still waiting for pictures to replace those removed by Phil Goff.

From his early years he favoured action over academia, but he seemed born to lead; from head boy at intermediate and then Papatoetoe High School through to his international aid work and now at Labour.

Not, he says, that he sought it.


"Leadership roles were something that just happened. I didn't go out looking for them or lobbying for them."

It was something that his key adviser, Conor Roberts, noticed immediately when Mr Shearer showed up in 2009, fresh off the plane, to win the nomination for the Mt Albert seat vacated by Helen Clark.

With little preparation, patchy networks in the party (though with the backing and friendship of new leader Phil Goff) and a rusty memory of the country's key issues, his speech carried the day.

"It was immediately clear this guy was something different," Mr Roberts says.

He spent the first two years putting together his networks and building knowledge of new technology, research and development and smart enterprises; an interest that he summed up as a wish for New Zealand to be "clean, green and clever" and for Labour to embrace the new employment realities of sole traders and contractors; not just slogans but also a signal of a new way of looking at the party's future.

Mr Shearer's appeal is his connection with ordinary people combined with a history of achievement, Mr Roberts says. "We want our leaders to be extraordinary and ordinary – and like John Key, he is that."

Mr Shearer's friend of 22 years, Chris Darby, says leadership quality, but also a warmth, are immediately obvious.

"He's just got brightness on his face ... he is extremely affable and ... people are picking up on that."

He can recall Mr Shearer being "extremely applied" as a cricketer at school in Papatoetoe, long before they were friends. "I was a leg spinner. David wanted to do everything on the field."

Their paths crossed again when they were neighbours in St Marys Bay. Mr Darby had called to discuss replacing a shared fence.

In the end, he was persuaded not to have any fence. "He has talked about that to the Israeli Government about another fence, but I don't think he convinced them of that. I think he might have suggested they plant ferns on the boundary as we did."

He says he always wonders whether he will see David again, because of the perilous places he goes. "You always have to draw the stories out of him. But don't underestimate him; he is calculating things all the time. He takes calculated risks.

"It never ceases to amaze me what he has achieved in a very quiet way."

As he describes it, the young David Shearer was not aware of massive differences in wealth.

Born into a middle-class family of school teachers in Papatoetoe, the three children – he was the oldest – were comfortable. But he bought a secondhand bike and painted it, bought and did up his own car, and built a boat in the garage in his teens with his Dad's help.

His father was a Presbyterian elder and David Shearer went to church every Sunday as a kid but has "lapsed since then". He says he believes in God but is not religious.

His old French teacher, Hugh Richards, described him as popular and "determined and totally and utterly reliable and responsible".

"That doesn't necessarily mean he was a goodie-goodie. If you had the choice, you would have a thousand of them in the school."

After high school, Mr Shearer trained as a teacher and taught science and geography but his international career started as most young Kiwis' adventures did, with an OE.

"I was with some mates travelling through Africa including [television journalist] Cameron Bennett [who is one of his closest friends] and his sister Elizabeth ... we had Scottish bagpipes, a guitar and a tin whistle. It was sort of a travelling road show. We wanted to follow the Nile down to its source."

Seeing starving kids fighting over food prompted him to look for a job with Save the Children. He admits, though, that it was not all about doing good – it was also about adventure. "I remember sitting down with a guy who had been doing that sort of thing who said it was a terrific life, one minute talking to diplomats, the next trying to get a Landrover out of a hole."

But even when he is admitting to being less than altruistic, the anecdotes are almost too good to be true.

"I worked for a week or two at Mother Teresa's home for the dying, it basically consisted of emptying sputum bowls from those dying of TB. Although it was worthy, it wasn't very interesting."

He comes alive when he starts telling his "war stories" from Somalia, Iraq or the Middle East. The most dangerous was probably Somalia, where "bullets flying over head became the background noise".

His wife Anuschka, Nush, as he calls her, worked with him there. "She is a Mt Roskill girl. I wish it could be more exotic, but it's not.

"I was her flatmate in a house she owned in Auckland and moved in and then after a few months moved in a little further. We got to know each other over the Cornflakes in the morning."

In Somalia, she was his head of operation. "She's tough. I remember a bunch of Somalis all came in with their guns and bandoliers of ammunition across their chests and said, `Mr David, could you talk to your wife, she is much too unreasonable'. She said no way they were getting more money, because they were paid enough.

"I had to say: `Look, Nush ... we might end up dead because of your tough stance'."

Nurse Gay Harper, 70, worked with Mr Shearer in Rwanda and Somalia and believes it was his diplomacy that allowed Save the Children to remain in Mogadishu where rebel forces were battling for control of the city. He bartered with war lords to allow clinics and feeding centres to remain open.

"Without someone of David's calibre, it's quite likely STC would have closed all operations until it was much easier."

In Iraq, he had a constant armed guard because he was a target as head of the United Nations mission, and had to travel in an armed convoy, but even then, he was far from safe.

"So it was Humvee, Humvee, white car, red car, white car, Humvee, Humvee. You wouldn't have to be a rocket scientist to work out where the target was – I was in the red car."

JERUSALEM-BASED Adam Hinds, who worked alongside Mr Shearer, travelled to northern Iraq with him to negotiate border disputes.

"He actually got a reputation – every time he'd go out, he'd be diverted inadvertently in the UN or coalition military planes. He ended up in strange situations travelling though strange countries he didn't need to. It was because he was always getting out and about."

At one stage he persuaded his escort to show him how to use a gun, in case he was the last man standing.

Mr Shearer said: "Actually we did the first one at night – of course, I'm going to tell you the good story – and I had a Glock handgun and the guy said I was good enough to be in the team. I was really pleased actually."

It was during his time in Gaza and the West Bank that Shearer made one of the biggest splashes of his career, documenting Israel's construction of the hated "security" wall and the restrictions imposed on Palestinians.

"Certainly, this is where his most important work that I'm aware of was done," says Beirut-based Alexander Costy, who worked with Mr Shearer in Jerusalem and Afghanistan.

"It was becoming increasingly difficult to get into Gaza and David was part of those efforts to negotiate access with the Israelis. He was instrumental in trying to get the Israelis to reduce the number of obstacles and checkpoints in the West Bank in order to allow Palestinians to move more freely, to go to school, hospitals, their fields, olive trees."

Mr Shearer is also proud of the work mapping settlements, Palestinian villages and the roads that were limited to Israelis. But it was not welcomed by the Israelis.

"The more they could tell their story the better, so they saw us as an obstacle. It was pretty tense. I remember the first meeting I had with the Israeli Government. The guy came in, and I was used to diplomacy and dealing with diplomats, and said, `David Shearer, I just want to tell you, you piss us off'.

"I said I was very sorry about that but I was just doing my job."

He rejects the idea of being "pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli" but seems more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

"They have been occupied since 1967. Israel needs to decide what it wants to do. If it continues to build settlements all over the West Bank, the possibility of a two-states solution gets dimmer and dimmer ...

"Where do they think they are going to be in 40 or 50 years ... when there is no room for Palestinians to move?"

He says as prime minister he would bring a "different perspective" to New Zealand's stance on the Middle East.

New Zealand abstained on allowing Palestinians into Unesco, "I would have voted for it", he says.

In Kabul, shortly after the overthrow of the Taleban, Mr Costy shared a cramped office with Mr Shearer, and recalls Mr Shearer was charged with dealing with the finance ministry to get aid processed as quickly as possible. The job is not listed on his CV, although he spent at least 10 months there.

Mr Costy described his friend as "one of the least bureaucratic people that I have ever met in the UN and one of the most inspiring for that reason" but he had a lighter side, particularly when he was strumming his guitar.

"I absolutely loved working with him," Mr Hinds said. "He had this rare combination – effective, motivating and fun to be around. He's the kind of guy you'd like to spend time with."

Even in social situations, Mr Shearer was working.

His most complex role was in Iraq, where he oversaw a multibillion-dollar budget, hundreds of employees, co-ordinated contractors and non-government organisations and worked with the military and the Iraqi Government.

Mr Shearer sums up his achievement there in simple terms: "It moved from us doing things to empowering Iraqis to do it for themselves."

Looking back on his career, he says it tended to "zigzag" but when he got into something, he made the most of it.

"If it doesn't feel right, I get out."

He quit a job with the UN in Rwanda after three months. "If you are in the midst of bureaucracy, there is nothing more demoralising. I don't like bureaucracy, no."

At the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, he penned a paper sympathetic to the use of mercenaries. Fringe National strategists tried to use it against him.

"I squashed it," Mr Shearer says.

In Sierra Leone he had seen thousands of women and children with their hands and feet cut off by opposing rebels, and the government had no ability to control it. But a hired company had stopped it. "I simply said, `Look, if that can happen, frankly, this is not all bad. We have got to look at the positive side of it as well'."

Mr Roberts remembers vividly how effectively Mr Shearer killed discussion of it at a student forum.

"Have you ever seen a mother trying to look after her kids when she has no hands or feet? I would defend any action that stopped that."

There was instant silence.

Back in New Zealand and as a new MP in 2009, he admits it was hard to settle in, and the kids missed their friends in Jordan where they had lived while he was working in Iraq.

His family had not always craved excitement the way he did, but they took it in their stride.

"I remember the kids in Jerusalem standing outside the local supermarket with their arms outstretched while a guy with an Uzi waved a wand over them. They were arguing about what flavour icecream they wanted, and I realised that maybe they'd been a little too acculturated to weapons and stuff."

The "newness" of being a politician was exciting but he had spent most of his working life away and had poor networks here.

Did he come back rich like John Key? No, he says. The Parliamentary register shows a UN pension scheme, two trusts, two properties and two sections.

Public records show he and his wife own a house in Pt Chevalier valued at $760,000, a rental property in Avondale worth $450,000 and a half share in a 167-hectare block in Northland.

Mr Shearer bought the $1m bush block with friends Chris Darby and Diana Renker last year.

The Dominion Post