Editorial: Shearer had options

22:05, Nov 21 2012

We can only conjecture on the treat we missed when Labour leader David Shearer cancelled his visit to Hamilton and Huntly and flew to Wellington for an urgent caucus meeting. "Post-conference priorities", as a party spokesperson described them, meant his visit to our region was dispensable. More important was the meeting in Wellington which he entered and emerged from as party leader.

This piece of political theatre essentially served to reaffirm that Mr Shearer has the support of his party caucus, at least for now. It was a unanimous endorsement, we are told.

Mr Shearer demonstrated strength, of a sort, too, by demoting his party's best debater, David Cunliffe, and stripping him of his economic development and associate finance posts. He said he no longer had confidence in Mr Cunliffe, who had persistently failed to declare his support for him. He did not trust him. He had no choice.

Yet Mr Cunliffe virtually assured Mr Shearer of a unanimous vote of caucus support by declaring he would endorse his leadership, at least for now. His offence was failing to declare what he might do in February next year, when the Labour caucus is constitutionally obliged to conduct a leadership ballot. It's a secret ballot. Hence we had the constitutional absurdity of Mr Cunliffe being pressed by the media to declare how he might vote in a secret ballot in three months (a decision that would be influenced by how the parties will be polling then, among other things). His refusal to oblige his inquisitors was construed by party colleagues as evidence of disloyalty.

Mr Shearer did have choices. One was to show strength not by demoting Mr Cunliffe but by promoting him. Michael Cullen became Helen Clark's deputy, although he had been among Labour MPs who asked her to step down as leader in mid-1996. Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama's rival for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008, became his secretary of state. That's smarter than having a malcontent on the back benches. Another choice was to forget about the leadership fuss, after making a good job of projecting himself to the party conference. He could have flaunted his credentials to be prime minister in the Waikato instead.