Charmed Shearer's speech better be a rip-snorter

19:42, Mar 11 2012

Get ready for David and Goliath. In the next week, we will see the battle of the speeches as Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader David Shearer go head to head with two much-anticipated addresses.

If you hadn't been paying attention in the last couple of weeks, the face-off looks a rather unfair mismatch.

The country's leader is due to set out his Government's much-trailed vision for the state sector. Meanwhile, the rather low-key new Opposition leader is talking over the cornflakes and hash browns at a law firm.

Mr Shearer is about to emerge from the shadows. His first few months have been underwhelming – deliberately so as he finds his feet and takes the temperature of his party.

Now he's ready and this is his big moment. The question on everyone's lips is whether Mr Key is going to attempt to steal his thunder by also timing his speech for Thursday.

A couple of weeks ago, you couldn't shut Mr Key up about the public service. He offered up a tantalising little nugget about Google's involvement, mainly because he didn't have anything else to talk about at that week's post-Cabinet press conference. Since then, the attempts to prime the media have seen the speech grow to almost mythical proportions.


The public service is poised for revolt at any hint of restructuring or more job losses. The public are waiting to hear exactly what these "better, more efficient services" will look like.

It may have spooked the horses. Senior government figures have been hosing down speculation and officials are refusing to confirm if the speech will even take place this week. One said expectations are getting a bit high and Mr Key will touch on "directions" but not a big revamp.

With such a stonking election result, National is confident it knows what people want. Sure, asset sales were always going to be a bit tricky, but National set out its vision, the public want to see action and the Government is going to continue down that road, except that the wheels have come off and National has lost control in a pretty dire couple of weeks.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's restructuring has descended into farce, with daily, delicious leaks about an expensive consultant offering up daft ideas, Murray McCully arrogantly chartering a private plane, profligate proposals to spruce up embassies and overseas ambassadors getting stuck in.

The much-heralded return to surplus by 2014-15 is looking about as likely as John Banks losing a caucus vote.

Add this to the Crafar farms fiasco and resistance to the mixed-ownership model and Mr Shearer has plenty to beat the Government with. However, he's going to resist the temptation.

Mr Key might be aiming for a positive spin by talking up state sector reform, but the inevitable negative headlines will zone in on job cuts. Mr Shearer is aiming to contrast by being sunny and "future-looking".

It's time to make a decisive move away from former Labour leader Phil Goff's drillbit-style negativity. Mr Shearer has decided he is not going to waste time murdering the Government and run the risk of looking too cynical.

Labour has the opportunity to hold the Government to account in Parliament, and it has got off to a rollicking good start this year.

He's got his troops to turn the screws – and his leadership has been like a good dose of Red Bull to the likes of Mr Goff, Clare Curran, Darien Fenton and David Parker. Even David Cunliffe is playing constructive.

His role is to look like a shadow prime minister, the architect of the big-picture dreams.

Mr Shearer knows rhetoric about National not having a plan for the economy is looking pretty tired. Labour's own plan didn't appeal to voters.

Instead, he will be talking up his alternative of investment in schools, science and research and development.

But although the party is reviewing its policies – around extending working for families tax credits to beneficiaries, for example – don't expect anything other than hints until 2014.

It also doesn't pay to underestimate Mr Key, a man who can sell ice to Eskimos.

Among the public, there is a ready willingness to accept a leaner state sector, if it is handled well.

David beats Goliath by attacking where his stronger rival is weak.

As the financial crisis rumbles on, Labour will continue to argue cost-cutting creates a downwards spiral and it will expand the economy and tax revenues. But National won that argument at the general election – people still believe National is the best economic manager.

The danger is Mr Shearer could look wishy-washy. If he isn't talking about policy and he isn't spearing the Government, what else is there?

Hopefully, not a repeat of that much-told anecdote about chucking mango skins off the back of a lorry in Sudan.

In a series of speeches from next week, he will play up his "saving the world" back story. His team believes that although the press gallery might be bored with it, most of the public haven't heard about his humanitarian work.

But Mr Shearer has had such a long lead-in that the expectations around his speech are also high.

He took the unusual route of forgoing a state of the nation address, and the pundits forgave him, just, because he seems like the kind of guy who can get away with doing things differently.

Those who have watched Mr Shearer at work say he operates best where the challenges are greatest. But political watchers are the most impatient and cynical of all.

If this speech isn't a ripper, he will have wasted his honeymoon.

The mauling will be feral – more Daniel in the lion's den than David and Goliath.