David Shearer interview

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
The new Labour leader says his party is ready for a change, but does that include confronting the union muscle within the party?

David Shearer’s holiday surfing tan had barely begun to fade this week when he stood up at Ratana Pa to begin the long process of regenerating the Labour Party’s relationship with Maoridom. It was his first major public appearance in a year in which he has set himself a big task: the remaking of the country’s oldest political party. Labour, more than after its last electoral thrashing in 2008, seems humbler and more ready for self-examination, and Shearer says his elevation to the leadership is itself evidence that the party knows it needs to change.

“We’ve now been told that people want to see a Labour Party that’s different, that’s changing, that’s got new ideas,” he says. Policies are being re-examined. So is the potentially explosive issue of how much power trade unions continue to exert in the party. In his astonishing rise from the debris of Labour’s election defeat, Shearer, 54, has something of the feel of an accidental leader. Wearing a pale-pink business shirt and black stovepipe trousers, he is still settling into the wood-panelled Opposition Leader’s suite at Parliament, when the Listener calls.

In person, he has a pleasant self-confidence, similar to John Key’s. Both men came to politics from glamour backgrounds: Key worked in high finance in London and New York; Shearer played a pivotal role with the United Nations in Iraq. Both previous roles required deep reservoirs of steeliness and composure. Both are attractive men. Key romances his wife, Bronagh, on women’s magazine covers, but Shearer’s record as a husband is worthy of Hollywood: in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu in 1992, he rescued his wife, Anuschka Meyer, from a gunman armed with an AK-47 – negotiating through an interpreter for half an hour with her captor.

Shearer describes Key as “the pole who holds the rest of the National Party tent up”. And he says Labour won’t beat Key in 2014 unless it can become the most credible party on the critical issue of the economy – something it has failed to do. “We need to be seen as a party that is able to walk straight into government and is completely trusted in our fiscal management.”

He acknowledges that Labour was seen as too loose with its spending promises at the last election, which “suggests to me we need to be making sure that we are seen as fiscally responsible, put it that way”. But he won’t say whether Labour will be tougher on its spending promises this term, saying for now it is about laying down “broad markers”. Labour’s proposal for a capital gains tax and its policy of slowly raising the age of entitlement for National Superannuation to 67 are both up for review. Shearer says he found on the campaign trail that most of those against the Super policy were people in their early sixties, “who didn’t actually understand that it didn’t affect them”.

“The people who loved it, or really liked it, were people who were 21, 22, 23. It makes you think the older people didn’t get it because we didn’t come out in a way that allowed them to understand it.” Shearer says Labour will need to offer a positive vision of where it takes the economy, and the flourishing high-tech, IT sector is key. Unusually for an opposition leader, he has retained his policy portfolio, that of science and innovation, because of his interest in the tech sector. He also wants to make his mark on the issue of welfare, which he says, “should be about offering hope and responsibility”. Yes, he says, the state will provide in times of need, but the responsibility is reciprocal.

But he won’t comment on whether he will keep Labour’s $2.6 billion election policy of extending the Working for Families scheme to beneficiaries. The policy, drawn up by former deputy leader Annette King, was a major victory for children’s advocates because it would have slashed child-poverty numbers. But it was also a momentous backtrack for Labour, abandoning the party’s long-held insistence that Working for Families was for struggling working families only.

Labour candidate Josie Pagani, in a newspaper opinion piece, publicly questioned the policy, saying that when she doorknocked in the safe National seat of Rangitikei in the week the policy was released, voters were constantly asking her, “So what’s the point of working my guts out all week while someone sitting at home on the dole gets the same tax credit as me?” Now the policy is in the hands of frontbencher Jacinda Ardern, the party’s social development spokeswoman. On whether the policy should stay, Shearer says: “I would like to sit down with people like Jacinda Ardern, who has been thinking about this for some time, and some of my other colleagues before we go down that track.” Reviewing policy is standard for any new leader, but where things may get interesting is that this time, the party organisation, constitution and candidate selection are also under the microscope.

The loss at the election of two talented rising MPs, Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis, has caused angst over whether Labour’s process for selecting the party list gives too much weight to unions and special-interest groups such as women and the “rainbow” sector (gay, lesbian and transgender), and not enough to talent. The careful division of list slots by gender, ethnic background and sexual orientation may represent the pinnacle of identity politics, but may also go some way towards explaining why the party failed to connect with voters in the socially conservative provincial seats. There, the party vote was running at 21- 22%, compared with 27% nationally.

Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter has gone so far as to call for Labour to cut its ties with the union movement, ending the special rights of affiliated unions within the party. “What were formerly the powerhouses of working-class democracy and the generators of workers’ power have become self-selecting oligarchies, against which all dissent crashes and burns,” he wrote. These days only one in five workers belongs to a union.

The high list placement of union stalwarts Darien Fenton and Sue Moroney, neither of whom is a star performer, was seen by some as evidence of an excessively strong union influence. So, too, was the positioning of former Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) head Andrew Little at No 15. Eyebrows were also raised at the high placement of women such as Moana Mackey at 19 and long-serving MP Ruth Dyson at 5. Dyson vaulted up eight places from her spot at the 2008 election.

One sign that list rankings may be out of touch with voter sentiment is that MP Damien O’Connor opted off the list, presumably because of his low ranking. Yet O’Connor (famously forced to apologise to caucus last year for saying the party’s list selection is run by “self-serving unionists and a gaggle of gays”) proved to be arguably Labour’s most successful candidate, winning back West Coast-Tasman from National in a result that ran against the blue tide. The last time the party was reviewed was in 1995, in the lead-up to the first MMP election the following year. Moira Coatsworth, the party president, has said this one will be an internal review, but Shearer is raising the stakes by signalling an outsider will be brought in to run it.

“I think it would be wise to have it some distance from the party,” he explains. “You can’t bring in someone who doesn’t understand how the party works and expect them to do it, but at the same time you don’t want it to be a completely internal report. You have to have some degree of independence.” An issues paper from the review is due out by May, in time for regional conferences, and any constitutional changes are due to be considered by the party’s annual conference in November. For her part, Coatsworth says criticism of the role of unions in Labour amounts to “mischief-making”, and vastly overestimates their power.

Asked what sort of constitutional change she envisages could arise out of the process, she says one option is a change in the way the leader is selected. Currently the leader is selected by Labour MPs, whereas in the UK the wider party has a say. In the most recent contest, candidates for the first time toured the country, addressing party members. The packed meetings were a tonic for the party, bringing some lapsed members back. “There was a lot of member interest in leadership processes;  different options for selecting leaders,” says Coatsworth.

Shearer says it is a good time for a review “because we didn’t do very well, so clearly people aren’t fired up by Labour. It’s not seen as necessarily the party of aspiration for people. Workplaces have changed and people are now self-employed, taking on different activities. What do we need to do in order to make Labour their party? I would like to see a party where we’re able to have a much more open contest of ideas. Avenues where people can come and debate ideas. What often tends to happen in political parties is you end up having a meeting on a Monday night and you talk about administrative things rather than necessarily bigger ideas.”

He points to the Australian Labor Party, which has online policy debate forums for members on its website. “It’s moving along those lines where people can feel there’s an engagement with some of the big issues that are coming up in the country.”

So how much power do the six unions (the EPMU, Service and Food Workers, Rail and Maritime Transport, Dairy Workers, Meat Workers and Maritime Unions) affiliated to Labour really have within the party? The mythology is that the union card vote – which allows union delegates to vote on behalf of affiliated members who aren’t present and don’t take part in the Labour Party – was a founding principle for the party when it was formed in 1916. But the card vote didn’t appear until 1939, when the so-called “Black Prince”, union boss Fintan Patrick Walsh, won its introduction in order to drive popular rebel MP John A Lee out of the party. (Lee was a socialist who had attacked the mental capacity of dying Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, and was expelled at the party conference in 1940 with the help of a huge union card vote.)

The strong role of unions in the Labour Party wasn’t seriously questioned until the late 1960s, when a clutch of rising young Auckland Labour Party activists tried to challenge what they saw as a sclerotic union establishment who were shutting out newcomers from having a voice within the party. Jim Anderton, Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett and Guy Chapman penned a series of proposed remits for the 1967 conference in a document dubbed The Red Book, aimed at democratising the party. The booklet was mailed out to the party by the young upstarts but party bosses squashed the revolt, recalling the booklet and ordering it burnt. Anderton resigned from his paid position as secretary of the Auckland Regional Council of the Labour Party in protest.

Affiliated unions continued to have the power to dominate the floor vote at the annual party conference well into the 1970s and 1980s. A single union delegate could wield up to 50 votes in a card vote. However, a series of amendments in later years limited some of the voting power of unions, and required more delegates to be present when card votes were used. Party insiders say that unions now account for only about 20% of the vote at a conference, where they can use their vote to influence party office-holders and remits on policy. President Coatsworth says she can’t put a figure on the union vote, but says it is “a minority”.

Labour’s six affiliate unions have some 90,000 members, of whom between 60% and 75% typically vote to affiliate. Assuming an average affiliation vote of two-thirds, that is around 60,000 union members, spread across 70 electorates, which entitles unions to heavy representation on local electorate committees. Unions can thus dominate at candidate selections in local electorates, should they wish to, and are strong players in the regional and national list committees.

If a winnable Labour seat comes up for candidate selection, it is hard to beat the union candidate if one of the affiliates sets its mind to it. Shearer found that out in 2002, when he was beaten to the Labour Waitakere candidacy by Lynne Pillay, who was backed by the EPMU. Pillay went on to hold the seat for two terms, but made little impression at Parliament, and it wasn’t until 2009 that Shearer won the Mt Albert nomination for Labour. Anderton later became Labour Party President before leaving in the 1980s to found the NewLabour Party and, later, the Alliance. By the time he retired from Parliament last year, he was back in the Labour fold, although he never formally rejoined the party.

He says it is time for the union card vote to go. “It’s come to the end of its time, I think. It’s a time to get active membership back, and that means people who will actually help and work. The union movement is a historical part of Labour and they are free to support Labour as affiliates, but if you want to belong to the Labour Party and really have a say, you should join. So this business of having a paper membership that’s affiliated should end. They can turn up to a selection meeting not having been to a meeting for three years and have a vote for a candidate.” The affiliated union members are “very little use to the Labour Party”, Anderton says. “These members don’t turn up to branch meetings or help in the electorates. I think they should face the reality that if you want a strong Labour Party, you have to have a strong mass party.”

Anderton’s views on his old party still carry some weight. He is believed to have played a critical role in Labour’s election campaign by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors. A moribund party organisation had failed to raise the required funds, and leader Phil Goff asked Anderton to help. Donation returns from 2011 have not yet been formally declared, but the Listener understands that the union contribution – about $120,000 over the past three years – will form only about 20% of total donations.

Shearer has been a union member only once, briefly, as a teacher, and he’s cagey about his personal views on the role of unions and sector groups in the selection of candidates. “What we’ve got to recognise is that, if we’re going to win, we’ve got to have balance and talent, and we’ve got to think very carefully about making sure those two things are there,” he says. Are the unions too strong within Labour? “One of the issues around that is not so much their strength, it’s the lack of strength of ordinary members. We need to increase our membership, increase our financial base,” says Shearer.

But surely he isn’t really going to take on the unions. They’re sacred. No one in Labour would dare touch them. Shearer grins broadly. “Well, I won’t comment on that. We’ll see what happens.” A few minutes later he adds, “Don’t get me wrong, the unions have always been part of our party and they will continue to play a big role in the party. I don’t think that’s going to change. But we also recognise there are other forces in society and society is changing as well.”

Another force on Labour’s list moderating committee is the sector groups, representing women, Maori, Pasifika, Labour’s rainbow network and youth. Is there a risk of Labour dividing up the list on the grounds of identity politics rather than talent? “This is being looked at as part of the process of this review: how do we get to the best possible line-up of MPs to bring about a victory.”

In the end, says Shearer, he wants to project a new sense of what New Zealand is and could be. He would like it be seen as “clean and green, you’d like it to be clever. It’s compassionate in terms of the way that it treats its people, and it’s confident about where it sits in the world.” Whether he can remake Labour to project that confidence, compassion, environmentalism and cleverness will be the test of whether the accidental leader was an inspired punt or a desperate gamble.


Ruth Laugesen (“The man in the middle”, February 4) and Jane Clifton (Politics, January 7) both repeat media criticism of Labour’s list, blaming union affiliates for the failure to get some of Labour’s talent back into Parliament.
The low party vote was the main reason some first-term Labour MPs did not get back into Parliament. At the time the List Committee met, Labour was polling around 33%, at which point Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis would have been safe. As one of the two union-affiliate reps on the list committee with just two votes (of around 40), I can say we did support both these excellent men. We also supported high-performing women MPs who missed out, namely Carmel Sepuloni and Carol Beaumont.
Clifton mentions Josie Pagani, who was also supported by the affiliates, but she was a new Labour Party member who was not in the top rankings of the list in her own region, so could not have been expected to be as highly ranked nationally as the others mentioned above, all of whom were MPs.
Laugesen mentions Ruth Dyson and Sue Moroney. Naturally, we supported these MPs for high list placings as they have contributed to debate on important issues such as health and disability (Dyson) and early childhood education (Moroney).
It was not simply because they are women, though one would expect any political party to have women highly placed in its list in today’s world where women participate in all walks of life at high levels. Are you suggesting women naturally lack talent?
The Labour list process is highly democratic. It starts with regional list ranking meetings attended by hundreds of party members.
There were 400-plus members attending the Auckland-Northland list selection, including some affiliated union members who came under their own steam because they wanted to participate. There are no card votes at these meetings. It is “one person, one vote”.
The List Committee brings together all the regional rankings and has as many regional reps as sector group reps. It relies heavily on the members’ rankings at the regional list conferences in coming up with a national list that represents the general population. The big problem is doing justice to all the amazingly talented people who put their hand up for Labour.
As for members of affiliated unions, they are valued members of the Labour Party who participate in local electorates, fundraising and helping with election activities – delivering leaflets, putting up hoardings, supporting candidates at local markets and street corners, and encouraging their neighbours to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Jill Ovens
Strategic industry leader, Service and Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota


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