In launching his "Healthy Heartland" campaign tour in Nelson this week, Labour leader David Shearer made some points of particular relevance to regional New Zealand. The real issue for him, as he attempts to portray his party as the prime force in a credible government-in-waiting, is whether anyone was listening.
Any politician is inevitably going to struggle to be heard against the noise generated during an Olympic Games. More, Mr Shearer has given the impression since assuming office in December that he has been more about listening than talking, and so has yet to develop a commanding presence on the national political stage.
As if the saturation coverage out of London over the past fortnight has not provided enough competition for the nation's ear, Mr Shearer also found himself up against a couple of unwelcome distractions from within his own party: infighting over Labour MP Louisa Wall's bill promoting gay marriage, and further murmurings about the possible leadership ambitions of Mr Shearer's main rival eight months ago for Labour's top job, David Cunliffe.
Mr Shearer has had to handle such comparatively minor irritations before and unless, or until, he builds both his profile and his party's position in the polls the rumours about leadership will continue. It is sometimes overlooked, but the substance of what our political leaders say is of more importance than the style or the timing of their delivery.
Mr Shearer's recognition that New Zealand's economic strength is in the heartland is a point worth repeating. He will have his work cut out convincing conservative farmers that Labour can rebuild and recalibrate the New Zealand economy to their advantage - but it is refreshing to see his party looking beyond the main urban political strongholds and acknowledging the role of the regions.
His claim that the heartland is being neglected will resonate strongly among those who do happen to hear it. Mr Shearer points out that government services are being closed in regional areas and centralised in Wellington. Rural jobs have been lost, funding for regional polytechs cut more savagely than for urban ones, and roading funds slashed in order to build new highways in Auckland.
He goes on to promote the cause of hi-tech, high value manufacturing, and points to the success of the dairy industry as a case in point. Given the top of the south's position as a crucial primary producer and the home of research, development and science heavyweight the Cawthron Institute, Labour's focus on the importance of investing capital in innovation has particular relevance here.
He confirms his party's position on research and development tax credits rather than rewarding investment in urban speculation, and suggests the Government should be changing monetary policy to make our currency less volatile and more competitive. All of these ideas would help kick-start a regional economy which remains uncharacteristically sluggish. The first key for Mr Shearer and for Labour is, how many people are listening. The second is, do enough believe his party has what it takes to make the sort of changes he proposes.
- © Fairfax NZ News