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Q and A - Corin Dann Interviews David Shearer



Sunday 8 September 2013

Corin Dann Interviews David Shearer

Outgoing Labour leader David Shearer has told TV One’s political editor Corin Dann that he feels both relieved and disappointed to be stepping down as head of the party.

Mr Shearer resigned as leader in August, ending months of speculation about his leadership.

“Oh, in one respect relieved, obviously, because it takes a huge weight off your shoulders, and in other respects disappointed, of course. You know, I put a lot into it and I would have liked to have continued on,” he says.

But he says he found both the pettiness of politics and being in Opposition frustrating.

“A lot of it was petty. A lot of it was venal. I think politicians from all sides come in to make a difference, to actually get something done, and what you get caught up with, particularly as the leader, is, you know, point-scoring and that sort of pettiness. And I just found it boring, I found it beneath me, and I wasn’t very good at it because of that. Other people thrive on it. They love it. I mean, that’s the thing they love about— the arena of politics. For me, I found it a bit below me,” Mr Shearer says.

But he also battled disunity within the Labour party, which ultimately lead to him stepping down. He says whoever takes over from him as leader must have the full backing of the party. Labour is currently holding an electoral process within the party to elect a new leader. The three candidates standing are David Cunliffe, Shane Jones and Grant Robertson.

“What we need to see is whoever wins, we all need to get behind that person. Certainly from my point of view, whoever wins this competition, I will give them 100% support, and I don’t care who it is. Well, I’d say I do care who it is, but if that person wins, then we get in behind them, and we can't do anything else, because if we don’t do that, then we won't win. It’s as simple as that. The most corrosive issue for us in the Labour Party has been disunity.”

And he says he often felt more comfortable in war zones than he’s felt in politics.

“I always felt, oddly enough, more comfortable in a war zones than I did in the Labour Party— not so much in the Labour Party but in politics. I mean, obviously in politics you're getting sniped at from all directions. In a war zone, you can generally tell who the good guys are and who are the bad guys.”

And he says he doesn’t regret holding up two snapper in Parliament, a stunt that happened just days before he resigned. He says fighting to protect recreational fishers snapper quota has brought back many of Labour’s previous supporters.

“You're out there by yourself and you make the calls. And if they work, you know, you get the plaudits, and if they fail, you get the blame, and that’s just the way it is. On the fishing issue, though, I actually went out fishing last Tuesday and caught 16 snapper with a couple of mates, and I’ll fight that on the beaches till the very, very end. And the whole idea of that is it was meant to be a bit of a laugh. And if anybody looked at that, what they didn’t realise was that the group that had walked away from Labour were male, white, middle-income – the kind of guys that were lining up on the fishing issue. And they got in behind us. That was gold for us, and many of the people in Beltway just didn’t actually recognise that.”

And on the matter of Syria, Mr Shearer, who has years of international experience in humanitarian affairs and conflict resolution, says Prime Minister John Key must support the UN Security Council in creating the space for whatever retaliatory action needs to happen, rather than backing the United States in what would be a mostly unilateral strike on Syria.

“That’s not going to work. I mean, first of all, it will be hated by the Arab street right across the Middle East. Secondly, it could actually propel Assad into a role of being picked on by a big— You could actually enhance his reputation. Thirdly, it could really damage the burgeoning relationship with Iran with its new leader. Fourthly, Israel is a proxy for the United States. Who knows, there could be some attacks against them. Fifthly, the relationship with Russia absolutely collapses, and Russia instead of being wedged into a corner by weapons inspectors that demonstrate that it was the Syrian regime that caused these attacks and Russia having then to come and respond in the Security Council, you give them an out. It has so many bad consequences that it’s not worth doing and I don’t think New Zealand should support it.”

Q+A, 11-midday Sundays on TV ONE and one hour later on TV ONE plus 1. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz

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Q + A – 8 September, 2013

DAVID SHEARER
Former Labour Leader

Interviewed by Corin Dann

SUSAN In an exclusive interview at his home on Friday afternoon, David Shearer spoke to Corin about what went wrong and how he felt now.

DAVID Oh, in one respect relieved, obviously, because it takes a huge weight off your shoulders, and in other respects disappointed, of course. You know, I put a lot into it and I would have liked to have continued on.

CORIN Are you going to stay in politics?

DAVID Oh, absolutely. I mean, I came in wanting to make a difference to New Zealand and that’s the reason for me being in politics. It’s the reason for my whole working life, really – why I have been doing what I’ve been doing, and that hasn’t changed and I’m very passionate about making a change in New Zealand and making sure that Labour wins.

CORIN How did you feel, then, about going back into that caucus? It must have a pretty difficult time for you.

DAVID You have to look forward and that’s what I’m doing. And I’d like to play a positive role, a senior role in whatever comes up and if I can do that, that’ll certainly satisfy me.

CORIN Talking about disappointment – what were the bits that were disappointing? What frustrated you in that role?

DAVID The thing I found most difficult really was the pettiness of politics, and being in Opposition. A lot of it was petty. A lot of it was venal.

CORIN Is this from within your party?

DAVID (laughs) No, the general political frame. You come in to— And I think politicians from all sides come in to make a difference, to actually get something done, and what you get caught up with, particularly as the leader, is, you know, point-scoring and that sort of pettiness. And I just found it boring, I found it beneath me, and I wasn’t very good at it because of that. Other people thrive on it. They love it. I mean, that’s the thing they love about— the arena of politics. For me, I found it a bit below me.

CORIN Yeah, because, I mean, people criticised you for not being ruthless enough or not being a good enough communicator. Did you feel that was justified?

DAVID What held me back was the people continually talking about it. At the end of the day, what people were talking about was not what I was actually saying.

CORIN Some of those were from within your own party. That’s part of the problem, wasn’t it?

DAVID Well, there's issues, obviously, around that, but the question really is— the issue really is trying to get your message across as opposed to somebody saying to you how you actually said it.

CORIN Did you also feel, though, that you had a united force behind you at all times – that the caucus, that the MPs that the party were behind you the whole time?

DAVID No. I mean, obviously last year, for example, around the conference last year was the classic case where there was a concerted effort to try and ease me out. I mean, I fought against it. When you do feel the caucus and everything is working well, I mean, it is a fantastic feeling. It feels like the ship’s really moving forward and you're making real headway. At the beginning of this year, for example, I felt that we had a real head of steam up. But there’s a group that obviously had been supportive of me before and moved away.

CORIN But what do you think they went then? Do you think that they thought that you were gaining momentum and therefore they had to sort of cut you off or something?

DAVID Oh, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them that. But as I say, we were only one or two points off, in a coalition arrangement, of being able to take National out without any problems.

CORIN That must be pretty hard to take, though, knowing that you were actually pretty close to being prime minister.

DAVID Yeah, obviously that is the most frustrating thing for me is that you work really hard, you get to that point, you go through those incredibly tough times of this year, of the middle of this year and you feel you're out of it, you're getting out of the woods and you're moving ahead again, and it’s all over, Rover.

CORIN So what went wrong?

DAVID Look, a series of things, I think. You know, you can look back and analyse it any way you’d like to, and I’m the first person to stand up and say, “Look, as the leader, it’s my responsibility. I take the blame for what went on.” I mean, you take the success, but you also have to take the blame and stand up and say, “Look, you know, it was my issue.” But we also faced a series of issues. The Budget was delivered pretty well. It was pretty good economic news around that time. We ran into the Sky City box issue, came out of that. It was like treading water. You sort of go under the water, you come back up again, try and move on. We ran into the “man ban” issue that just submerged us again. We came out of that, trying to move forward. And I actually felt in the last few weeks we were moving forward. We’d made a lot of changes in and around the office, and for me the question really was this could be a messy, drawn-out affair which would not do the party any good. And for me also, I wasn’t prepared to go around on bended knee to my caucus colleagues and ask for their support. I mean, that’s just not the way I do things.

CORIN Because Helen Clark did do that, didn’t she? I mean, she was faced with a very similar situation.

DAVID But it was different for her. In this situation, my understanding was that the numbers were pretty much in place. There wasn’t a leader sorted out. And in many ways, as we’ve seen, it actually split three ways. So my feeling was it was cleaner and better to do what I did rather than drag this down and make a, you know... It wasn’t becoming for the party and I didn’t believe it was good for me either. It’s not the way I do things.

CORIN You talked about things like the “man ban” and then there was the holding up the fish in Parliament, etc. Were you getting the right advice? And when those times got tough, that’s when you should have had the support. Did you feel that the people around you, the MPs around you were coming to really get your back at those points?

DAVID Well, you know, some of those issues, obviously I had their support, but at the end of the day, you're the leader. You're out there by yourself and you make the calls. And if they work, you know, you get the plaudits,
and if they fail, you get the blame, and that’s just the way it is. On the fishing issue, though, I actually went out fishing last Tuesday and caught 16 snapper with a couple of mates, and I’ll fight that on the beaches till the very, very end. And the whole idea of that is it was meant to be a bit of a laugh. And if anybody looked at that, what they didn’t realise was that the group that had walked away from Labour were male, white, middle-income – the kind of guys that were lining up on the fishing issue. And they got in behind us. That was gold for us, and many of the people in Beltway just didn’t actually recognise that.

CORIN But that’s interesting, because right throughout the time you were leader, you were constantly criticised from a rump on the left of the party that were chipping away at you on the blogs – the activists. What was going on there? What was going on with Labour? Why weren’t they behind you?

DAVID Oh, look, there's a whole bunch of reasons, and many of them were anonymous and I don’t know who they were, and I actually… frankly I never read them. It was just— It became too depressing to read these people. But clearly they thought the wrong person had become the leader. That was one thing. They wanted— They believed that what Labour should be doing is moving to the left, whatever that in fact means, and really what we needed to be doing was broadening our support, and if we didn’t take that group, that male group that I was talking about, then we weren’t going to win, and we had lost those a couple of elections ago, and we needed to take those people. Because ultimately when you take the centre, if you take a vote off National and you add it to yourself, you get two. They lose one; we gain one.

CORIN So is the Labour Party a united force, though? Because it does seem that there's a strong left-wing element – perhaps some of the former Alliance Party members, Progressive members that have come into the Labour Party that are pulling it left. Is it still a united force?

DAVID It is, and it can be. I mean, and whatever happens looking forward now, what we need to see is whoever wins, we all need to get behind that person. Certainly from my point of view, whoever wins this competition, I will give them 100% support, and I don’t care who it is. Well, I’d say I do care who it is, but if that person wins, then we get in behind them, and we can't do anything else, because if we don’t do that, then we won't win. It’s as simple as that. The most corrosive issue for us in the Labour Party has been disunity.

CORIN Let’s just talk about some of those. I mean, will you publicly endorse any one of the candidates?

DAVID No, I’m not. I’m not actually telling anybody who I’m voting for, except my wife, and I guarantee she won't tell you either.

CORIN You're going to come back. I mean, what do you hope to achieve? Would you like to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs one day? Is that a goal for you, given your background?

DAVID Well, that’s obviously an area I’ve got expertise in. I mean, for me, the two big issues facing New Zealand is a need to diversify our economy. We are a commodity-driven economy, which is fine except it will never create the jobs that’ll keep people in New Zealand, and we need to ensure that was expand that. And that’s why I kept the Science and Innovation portfolio when I was leader. We need to do that. The other main issue is the growing gap between the rich and the rest. And that’s a real concern for me. So anything that— Any role that addresses one or both of those issues for me would be something that I’d be very interested in.

CORIN Do you expect to have a role?

DAVID Look, I’d love to, actually. Obviously you don’t get into politics to sit on the back benches and twiddle your thumbs.

CORIN An issue like Syria would have been obviously something that you’ve got a lot of experience in that area of the world. What's your take on what is happening? Should New Zealand, for example, support unilateral action by the US if that’s what it comes to in terms of a strike on Syria?

DAVID No, I don’t believe it should. We should maintain an independent foreign policy. We’ve always done that and we should be very proud of that. The reality is at the moment the United States doesn’t have UN backing, doesn’t have Arab League backing as it did with Libya. And although you absolutely abhor what's happened with these chemical attacks, a unilateral attack will have really unintended consequences, and if there's one thing I learned about the Middle East, there is always unintended consequences. It’s a little bit like dropping a pebble into a stream – the ripples run out.

CORIN The idea of just a simple strike to teach them a lesson – that’s not going to work?

DAVID No, that’s not going to work. I mean, first of all, it will be hated by the Arab street right across the Middle East. Secondly, it could actually propel Assad into a role of being picked on by a big— You could actually enhance his reputation. Thirdly, it could really damage the burgeoning relationship with Iran with its new leader. Fourthly, Israel is a proxy for the United States. Who knows, there could be some attacks against them. Fifthly, the relationship with Russia absolutely collapses, and Russia instead of being wedged into a corner by weapons inspectors that demonstrate that it was the Syrian regime that caused these attacks and Russia having then to come and respond in the Security Council, you give them an out. It has so many bad consequences that it’s not worth doing and I don’t think New Zealand should support it.

CORIN So finally, what would be your advice, then, to the Prime Minister on what we should do?

DAVID What we should be doing, and particularly because we want to be on the Security Council, is supporting the United Nations and supporting the role of the Security Council in creating the space for whatever retaliatory action needs to happen.

CORIN You’ve obviously been in war zones. How do you rate it compared to being— with what you’ve just come from in the Labour Party caucus?

DAVID (laughs) It certainly gets your heart pumping sometimes. But, look, it’s a different issue. I always felt, oddly enough, more comfortable in a war zones than I did in the Labour Party— not so much in the Labour Party but in politics. I mean, obviously in politics you're getting sniped at from all directions. In a war zone, you can generally tell who the good guys are and who are the bad guys.

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