Panel discussion in response to David Shearer interview
Sunday 8 September,
Panel discussion in response to David Shearer interview
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Q+A 8 September, 2013
Hosted by SUSAN WOOD
In response to DAVID SHEARER interview
SUSAN Welcome to the panel: political scientist Dr Jennifer Curtin; Mike Williams, former president of the Labour Party; and Kiwiblog founder David Farrar. Good morning to you all. Fascinating last line in that interview: “safer in a war zone than in politics”, David. He really wasn’t well suited to that role of leadership, was he?
FARRAR – Kiwiblog editor
No, look, very perceptive, very good interview by David Shearer. What he said at the beginning about how he hated the negativity of being Opposition leader, etc, I remember he said when he came into the role he didn’t want to be one of these “gotcha” politicians. Yet I think part of why he didn’t succeed as leader is, whether it’s his advisers or his caucus tried to make him into that. You know, every day in the House doing the standard question to the PM: “Do you stand by all your statements?” trying to catch him out, etc. His strengths I think would have actually been spending more time going around the country talking his vision and his policy, not trying to beat John Key in the House.
SUSAN And, Mike, that performance – probably one of his best.
WILLIAMS – Former Labour Party President
Articulate, fluent – it showed what he could have been. But, you know, the leader of the Opposition is the worst job in politics, and I agree with what David’s just said, but you are expected to be able to perform at Question Time and hold your own with the Prime Minister. And I think to a large extent he did, but obviously to his own caucus not well enough.
SUSAN Jennifer, the most corrosive issue has been lack of unity. That is a pretty damning statement about the state of Labour at the moment, isn’t it?
JENNIFER CURTIN – Political
It is, and I think in that sense it was important that the leadership issue got solved when it did – far enough out from the election for it to matter less. I mean, I think the Australian case really demonstrates that if you don’t have leadership unity, then it can be really terrible for the party that’s in Opposition. But the role of the Opposition leader, as Mike says, is a ruthless job. You do actually have to be ruthless, and you do have to be able to perform in the House. So while a road show role for policy communication would have been great, he does have to show that he can counterattack Key in the House, and he didn’t manage that particularly well.
DAVID You need to be able to match the Prime Minister, but when you look at John Key in Opposition, he never beat Helen Clark as in thrashed her. He certainly was seen to hold his own. But he actually generally didn’t run a particularly negative campaign against her. The National campaign tended to be quite positive in 2008, mainly because the population, I think, had already accepted the “time for change” message. But you don’t want the Prime Minister-to-be to be seen too negative a figure.
SUSAN Will there by some sort of senior role, Mike, for David Shearer? He’s obviously keen on, you know, sitting on that front bench or thereabouts.
MIKE Yeah, absolutely. He’s got “cabinet minister” written all over him, I’d say, yep.
SUSAN What sort of role do you think it would be?
MIKE Well, Foreign Affairs is pretty obvious, but, you know, there's a bit of a queue for that job in the Labour Party should it— And of course there's always Winston, isn’t there?
SUSAN David, of course whoever wins the leadership battle, and we have got the poll coming up later in the programme – we’re talking the leadership battle between the three at the moment, and we’ll talk about that a little later in the programme. Whoever wins, though, will have the balancing act of, you know, David Shearer plus their own supporters plus the losers’ supporters as well. It’s quite a balance, isn’t it?
DAVID And that is going to be really tough, I think, for the new leader. Because, you know, those who have supported you are going to be expected to do better, but, you know, if you knock people off the front bench, well, you then end up with what David Shearer talked about where the bullets, unlike in a war zone, come from your own side, not just from the other side.
MIKE But there is a really important point here, Susan. My experience is it’s a hell of a lot easier to create unity in an election year than any of the other two years, and we are very nearly in an election year.
SUSAN And once this process has rolled through – I mean, they’ve got to want unity, don’t they?
SUSAN Interesting also, I found, Jennifer, some of the comments on the pettiness of politics – “venal”, “a bit below me”. And as you touched on earlier, Bob Hawke last night, the Australian election result, essentially saying that he feels that very thing – the pettiness, the venalness, the bad behaviour by politicians – Australian voters had punished the big parties to some extent for that. Are we seeing that here, do you think, as well? Will we see that here?
JENNIFER Yes, I think that voters do get sick of that white-anting, the kind of small, petty politics. I think for Labour – we talked about this a couple of weeks back – for Labour, turnout is the really big thing at the next election. So unity from within the party, but also portraying themselves outwardly as being back in touch with voters and not doing that small, you know, nasty politics behind the scenes.
SUSAN You’re nodding there in agreement, Mike. But how do you lift the debate so that it isn’t all just petty “nya, nya, nya”?
MIKE Well, I think, you know, you’ve got to— What Bob Hawke says, you’ve got to talk about values and things like that rather than who’s in bed with who and who’s bought what property off what landlord. And I think that David Shearer tried to do that to some degree, but I just think the people around him were giving him bad advice on a daily basis: you know, “get out there, get down in the gutter, scrap with John Key.” David’s right – that wasn’t the right idea, and it’s not what John Key did.
DAVID I’ve worked in Opposition, and it’s really tempting to go after the rabbit that jumps out of the hole. You’re meant to pick three or four issues and talk about them non-stop for a year. But something comes up and you think – like GCSB – “Oh, great!” And you jump on it and you spend a month on it, then you spend a month on something else. And that’s actually so tempting, but not the right thing.
SUSAN So you're chasing the messages, not actually creating them?
SUSAN Extraordinarily strong performance from David Shearer on Syria. I would hasten to— Well, I would say, actually, stronger than we’ve heard the Prime Minister thus far.
JENNIFER Absolutely, and I think really what he demonstrated with his five points at the end of that conversation was just how complex this issue really is, and so you can't make snap decisions, and I thoroughly endorse his comment that we’ve been very strong on having an independent foreign policy. That’s our legacy now. So while we’re cosy again with the Americans, it would be really important for us to make sure that we didn’t just blindly follow them into something that wasn’t endorsed by the UN.
SUSAN I’m seeing you both nodding in agreement there, am I?
DAVID And it may not just be the UN not endorsing it. Obama’s asked the US Congress to vote on it, and that’s not a certain outcome. And if he doesn’t get that vote, then that really makes it difficult for him to go ahead.
SUSAN And he won't even say if he’ll go with— You know, he will not even answer the question, Obama, if he’ll go without Congress’ support, so...
DAVID But he made the red line comment, and that’s his difficulty.
SUSAN Yes. It’s a fascinating and complex subject.