Rivals reflect on tough year in politics

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 10:44 08/12/2012
David Shearer
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
DAVID SHEARER: Labour leader.
John Key
Fairfax NZ
Prime Minister John Key

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It's just before 6am and John Key is already sweating it out in the parliamentary gym. When the door opens about 30 minutes later, it is David Shearer, arriving for his workout.

So what do they say to each other?

Just polite chit-chat, says Mr Key. But the point is not lost on him that he was through the door first.

Are politicians competitive?

Hell yeah.

If 2012 was a race between the two leaders, John Key would be clearing a spot on his wall for the gold medal. He still out-rates Mr Shearer by more than two-to-one as preferred prime minister and National's support is barnacle-like, its poll numbers barely budging from election night a year ago.

But that only tells half the story. Because neither man walks away unbloodied by 2012. Mr Key's political capital is being chipped away by the accumulated baggage of four years in office, and none of the last 12 months has been easy.

In contrast to previous years, when National was buffeted by events beyond its control - earthquakes, finance company failures and the global financial crisis - the story of 2012 has been one of self-inflicted wounds such as asset sales, memory lapses, a series of disasters in the education portfolio and the Kim Dotcom saga. Stack those lapses alongside an unfolding jobs crisis and sluggish economy, and 2012 is probably a year Mr Key would rather forget.

Today's Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll underscores the toll it has taken.

Of 1000 people surveyed, 40 per cent said their opinion of Mr Key had got worse over the past year, compared with 25.6 per cent who said it had improved.

Pollster Duncan Stuart says when those polled were asked to explain why their view of Mr Key had gone up or down, opinion was sharply divided.

To his detractors, he is out of touch and arrogant, policies such as asset sales and school closures are seen as favouring only the wealthy and his memory lapses and other "inconsistencies" mean he cannot be trusted. Finally, they complain, he smirks at inappropriate times, when he should be serious.

But to his supporters, Mr Key's attributes are overwhelmingly positive - they see him as charismatic and knowledgeable, a commonsense operator and someone who is trying hard in difficult circumstances.

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Mr Key rejects the suggestion that 2012 has worn away some of the Government's gloss.

"If you just take the polls as an example of where it's at . . . we're broadly ending the year where we started, which was the election. Our core vote is [still] with us."

But bottom line? "Yeah, it's been a pretty tough year," he admits.

"I don't think any years are going to get easier. I don't think next year is going to be easier, for instance, or the year after. I wish it would but the reality is every year is pretty tough in government."

That view is no doubt shaped by the premise that Mr Key has had it tougher than most prime ministers.

There have been no golden economic years, like those bestowed on his predecessors - just hard graft, massive debt and an empty bank account.

The poll shows that is why many voters continue to give his Government the benefit of the doubt on the economy.

It might also explain why Mr Key has had to bat off constant speculation about whether he will stick around beyond 2014.

But those who think he is a quitter underestimate him, suggests Mr Key.

He will stand in 2014 - and again in 2017 - if National is still in government, he insists.

But he is philosophical that 2012 may have been the year when voters started falling out of love with him.

"You can't sit on the fence and not make decisions. So I reckon maybe their affection for you might go down but, if you get any of it right, their respect for you might go up. And they are actually quite different.

"I think if you don't do things, you're warming the seat. What does that all mean? You look back and say, you know, ‘I was there'? That can't be a legacy, ‘I was there'. It's got to be - ‘I was there, and I made a difference to New Zealand, I believed in some things and I did them'."

IF FAMILIARITY breeds contempt, then that is a price David Shearer might have been willing to pay just a few months ago.

The first Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll in August showed he had made no impression at all on most voters, who thought he was Mr Invisible.

That seems to be the case no more.

The last few months may have seen only a slow improvement in Labour's fortunes, but the change in Mr Shearer's fortunes has been telling.

It seems the leadership showdown with rival David Cunliffe at Labour's recent party conference has finally answered the big question some voters had about Mr Shearer - is there an iron first in the velvet glove?

A sizeable 34.7 per cent told our pollsters he has gone up in their estimation compared with a year ago, when he first got the job. That is a bigger improvement than recorded by any other leader.

And it's not just Labour supporters Mr Shearer has impressed.

NZ First voter Trina told our pollsters: "He stood up against [Cunliffe] and showed some muscle."

Phillip, a National voter, made the observation: "He has stood up for what he believes in and tried to keep his party together, even though they are divided."

But there is still a long way to go. Among Mr Shearer's detractors - 21.4 per cent of those we questioned said he had gone down in their estimation - he is still seen as invisible, weak and unleaderlike.

That mirrors the criticism - increasingly torrid in recent months, particularly among grassroots Labour activists - that his leadership style is too bumbling, and too hesitant.

It's no wonder then that Mr Shearer laughs when asked if the last 12 months have been worth it.

"Asks me that in two years' time," he replies.

Rarely has a political leader had it so tough so early in their reign.

The doyens of the Left-wing commentariat, Brian Edwards and Chris Trotter, had the knife out for him early, and open warfare within the Labour leader's office alienated some former allies, including strategist John Pagani and former MP Stuart Nash.

Mr Shearer admits it has been a tough year, and not just on him, but his family.

"It's been hard to cope with. Let's face it, when you're getting slammed in the press . . . it's difficult. What I forced myself to do pretty early on is to look beyond what's happening today and look at where we want to be the end of the year, and at the end of year three."

He came into the leadership as a rookie MP, with barely three years in Parliament under his belt, and has had to learn all his political lessons the hard way, in the full glare of public scrutiny.

But, he insists, there are no regrets about not waiting

"I always believe [that] in life you regret what you don't do, not what you do. I would have regretted not putting my hand up."

Meanwhile, he believes, he has finally started to stamp his mark on Labour.

"What people want to see is a change. They want to see a difference. They don't want to see the last [Labour] government stretching into this one. And I think that's always the difficulty with transitions and I think that's what happened in the last three years.

"The challenge for us is to develop that new narrative which is really about a different way of working, a different leadership, different lineup, bold policy and getting that message out to people that they've got a real alternative."

- The Dominion Post

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