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Tim Watkin: Good first outing for Shearer

opinion

By Tim Watkin

Published: 4:53PM Sunday March 11, 2012 Source: ONE News

Labour MPs will feel happier than they have for some time after David Shearer's performance on Q+A this Sunday.

Already happier since the election thanks to poll results that have seen them gain a few points at the expense of National (rather than the Greens), it would have been a tonic to see Shearer handle television - and some probing questions - better than he has before.

There's still a way to go - mostly around eradicating the second guessing that goes on inside his head as he tries to find the best, or the safest, word - but Shearer gave his most competent performance to date in a TV studio. There was a hint of steel there too, which would have encouraged his colleagues given how uncertain and wavering he has been on the Ports of Auckland dispute.

Before you say it, yes, there are plenty of other important aspects to a successful leadership than just being able to handle yourself on telly. But make no mistake, it's a crucial skill for any political leader in 2012 and until now he has been pretty poor.

Shearer revealed on Q+A he would be sponsoring a new private members' bill that would make it harder for foreigners to buy New Zealand land - the minister would have much less discretion to approve any sale and the buyer would have to do more to prove the sale was of benefit to New Zealand.

It's good populist politics - not exactly the nitty gritty of creating jobs and getting the economy back on track, but one that will get voters' attentions and win the approval of most. The underlying message is, 'we share the same worries as you do and we get it'.

What Shearer wouldn't do is talk policy. The Q+A panel applauded him for stalling so effectively, but it's telling that he's not willing to commit to policies born of the Phil Goff Labour Party, and which he campaigned on as an MP.

Shearer made some positive noises about raising the retirement age, even though his deputy Grant Robertson has suggested that needs to be re-considered. Obviously the party hasn't reached consensus on that one yet, but it'd be disappointing for them to retract it. It more than any other policy stood out in the 2011 for showing political courage; the party moved the issue forward and won more public support for it than anyone expected. To back away now would send all the wrong signals.

Goff's policy of extending Working for Families to beneficiaries was also bold - his way of trying to use WFF's talent for redistribution and extend financial aid to the poorest. But it seemed to jar with New Zealanders' sense that working kiwis deserve some government help that others don't get. It's not emblematic of a generous spirit, but it's one seemingly well ingrained in our national psyche. And it contradicted the argument Labour made when it introduced the scheme.

Shearer's rhetoric is all around "responsibility" and rewarding those who want to work, so I can't see it surviving. I suspect taking the GST off fruit and veges will get a hard look as well - although given it's some rare common ground with the Maori Party, a party it may need to form the next government, it will want to be careful with that one.

Shearer was less equivocal about Labour buying back any state assets National sells while it's in power.

His challenger for the leadership, David Cunliffe, last year looked down the barrel of the camera on Q+A and said: "If the government is going to sell off precious state assets, then we would not rule out renationalising some of them. People need to be aware of that regulatory risk."

But Shearer seemed to hit that notion for six, saying: "We simply will not be able to have the opportunity to do that in the foreseeable future - to buy back those, because I just don't think we'll have the money."

Finance spokesman David Parker said last week that we don't need to increase taxes to improve the economy, but my guess is that a higher top tax rate of around 38% for those earning 150,000 or more will remain.

Of all Labour's marquee policies, the Capital Gains Tax is the safest (even if it comes in a different form). I think Labour's committed to that one and it will arrive one day, bringing us in line with nearly every other OECD country.

For now, as voters get to know him, Shearer is confident he can get away with fudging. Of course, the party has to come to agreement on these things before he can lay down its line, but he should be wary about taking too long. Three years get eaten up very quickly.

What Shearer wants to do in the first instance is have voters get a feel for him as a man and a leader. To probe that, interviewer Shane Taurima pointed out John Key had a simple takeaway line that everyone in New Zealand knows: 'He grew up in a state house and made a success of himself. And he understands money'.

That nutshell has made Key seem ordinary and affable, yet the right man for recessionary times. When Taurima asked Shearer for his line, the Labour leader's response was revealing:

"David Shearer's somebody who's spent his entire life working for others"

Off the cuff, that's a pretty good line.

He went on to say, "my style is that I'm serious about the issues" and that "I have got the killer instinct, and I have got the mongrel&  But what I'm not going to do is I'm not going to get into the petty politicking that goes on in and around Parliament".

Focus groups - and TV viewers - will lap up those sorts of sentiments. So a good first outing for Shearer. Now he heads off for a series of speeches around the country in coming weeks, and the hard work really begins.

Read more Tim Watkin opinion

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