Out of the frying pan: David Shearer on conflict in South Sudan and the Labour Party

by Michele Hewitson / 27 January, 2017

David Shearer in his old MG. Photo/Simon Young

When David Shearer told his family he was going to work in one of the world’s most troubled states, his son said, “Well, it’s got to be better than the shambles you’re in at the moment.”

Not long after David Shearer was dumped as Labour leader in 2013, I saw him at our Saturday market in Mt Albert. He looked like a man who had just had a lucky escape from a lunatic asylum. He hadn’t quite escaped, of course. He stayed on as the local MP and as Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman.

Now, he really has escaped from the bin and, at home in Pt Chevalier the week before Christmas, he looked like a man who should have had a speech bubble floating above his head, which would say: “Phew! Made it out alive.” He seems resolutely sane, too.

I say seems because he lives here in the lovely house he and his wife, family lawyer Anuschka Meyer, had built, with their two almost-grown-up children, Vetya and ­Anastasia, and a small, rowdy dog, Tino.

He is a keen and accomplished gardener, who has made a subtropical haven, with a tinkly water feature. He likes a glass of wine, playing his guitar and driving around his bashed-up old MG. And he has got out, alive. You look at him and think: there’s a happy man.

With Somali staff flying out of Somalia in 1992. Photo/Shearer family collection

And so what does he do? He takes a job in South Sudan, as the United Nations’ head of ­mission. South Sudan is the UN’s third-largest peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 uniformed and almost 2000 civilian ­personnel and a roughly $1 billion budget. That’s one definition of a big job. On the morning I went to see him, the Guardian mentioned the following attractions: “Ethnic cleansing involving massacres, starvation, gang rape … South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war.”

Somebody tweeted: “After seven years in the Labour Party, David Shearer was looking for a safe, stable workplace, and he’s found that in South Sudan.” Is that funny? I ask him. If bleakly.

“Ha, ha. Yeah. It’s that old apocryphal story attributed to lots of politicians asked what it’s like standing across from the enemy. And the answer is: ‘That’s not the enemy. That’s the opposition. The enemy’s behind me.’ And, yeah, that’s what it felt like in many ways.”

Shall we get David Cunliffe out of the way? If he’d managed to actually get Cunliffe out of the way, he might still be leader of the Labour Party, but, as we know, that achievement eluded him. ­Cunliffe became the even shorter-lived leader, from 2013 to 2014.

Does he hate Cunliffe? “No, no. I don’t hate him.” I thought, I say, stirring like mad, that everyone hated Cunliffe. “There’s a lot of people who love him.” He doesn’t love him. “No. I definitely don’t.” Shall we leave it there? “Yeah! Ha, ha.”

With Labour MPs in 2013. Photo/David White

We didn’t quite leave it there, because he later repeated the often-told story of the Labour Party conference in 2012, where Cunliffe and allies – the enemies who, in this case, were in front of him – were rumoured to be plotting to roll him. Shearer says he managed to hold him off then by giving a whiz-bang speech, after which “Cunliffe went quieter. He rang me that night, actually. Nush [which is what he calls his wife] and I went off to watch Emmylou Harris.” Later, he found Cunliffe had called and left two messages. “And I remember thinking: ‘This guy’s calling me and saying, “I just want you to know I’m 100% behind you”, and all that sort of stuff. Unreal’ … Extraordinary. I wish I’d kept them.” He didn’t reply. He’s saved his reply until now. Unreal about sums it up.

That he is taking his chance to reply now might be evidence of bitterness – except that he insists he is not bitter. This is possibly only because he has worked hard at not allowing himself to be, which is the best sort of revenge. Which doesn’t mean not allowing yourself the odd barb.

He does allow himself a measure of Schadenfreude about those poll numbers, which, in retrospect, looked pretty good. “Oh, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t look at my polling and say: ‘You know, maybe you guys should have thought twice before you decided to roll me.’”

I had wondered whether he really wanted to be leader, to be prime ­minister, because he didn’t look like a man who was enjoying being in charge. He says he really did, and so “I was pretty angry at the time.” And hurt? “Yeah, well, both, really. Because the thing for me was that we had gone through a patch which was rough about the time of the man ban.”

On stage with wife Anuschka Meyer at the 2012 Labour Party conference. Photo/Getty Images

Offside with the women

The man ban really was the stuff of the loony bin. It proposed that some ­electorates allow only women candidates and received what ought to have been a predictable response. Shearer was against it and “that got me offside with some of the women in our party. I was receiving hundreds of letters about that policy and probably 95 out of 100 were totally against the man ban.”

The proposed policy also got him offside with his wife. “I remember walking in here and Nush was standing there and she said, ‘What the f--- did you do that for? Don’t you think that I’ve got the ability to stand up against men? Who do you think you are? You guys.’ She was furious.”

He might have the huff, then, with the Labour Party. “No.” Shouldn’t he have the huff with the Labour Party? “Umm. No, I don’t think so. I think I got treated pretty badly by elements within the Labour Party.” You can take an educated guess as to the name at the top of the list of elements.

It is a cliché but a truism that all political careers end in failure. His biggest failure might be that he couldn’t manage to unite his colleagues, which appears to be a failure of leadership – although the talented snake-herders among us are rare. “Yeah. I guess if you wanted to put it in terms of what I wasn’t able to do. I think my roots in the party weren’t deep enough. I was a long time overseas. I didn’t know a lot of the people. I don’t have lots of contact. And over the [Helen]Clark years, there was a lid put down on everything and then suddenly it all just, in a sense, came out and I didn’t have the contacts or the ability to control.”

He might have a perverse sort of attraction to danger. This from an as-yet-unpublished piece he wrote for the ­Listener last year: “In 2004, a suicide ­vehicle blew up the hotel in the Red Sea where my family was staying. Had the explosion happened a few minutes earlier, my wife Anuschka would have been standing in the lobby the bomber destroyed. As it was, she and the children were outside. They drove the five hours through the night back to our Jerusalem home and I remember my son, who was nine, ­drawing pictures of the devastation he’d seen: the bodies and lines of ­stretchers holding the wounded that he had needed to walk past.”

Shearer feeding a lamb in 1964. Photo/Shearer family collection

So why?

Honestly, after all that, why doesn’t he just stay home? He has his lovely house and garden and his lovely, clever and gorgeous wife and their lovely kids – who are adopted, from Russia, because they wanted a family and “we weren’t very successful having kids” – who won’t be going to South Sudan with him. They could always get the dog debarked. “Because it’s not enough, really. I really do want to make a difference. I know it sounds all trite and funny, but that’s the reality.”

Also this, again from the piece he wrote for this magazine: “We also need deeper connections with our own Muslim communities – not just senior leaders, but young Muslims, too. Our greatest protection lies within our 40,000-strong Muslim community. As one woman told me recently, ‘We are not Muslims in New Zealand, we are Muslims of New Zealand’ – Kiwi families who want what we all want, and happen to follow the Muslim faith.

“If we want to combat extremism and terrorism, we need to gain insight and understanding into underlying causes. It’s long overdue. We have a poor understanding of why young people – and not only Muslims – are heeding the call of IS, both here and elsewhere. Some see it as an idealistic cause, some are disgruntled and others are attracted to a force capable of standing up to great Western powers.

“Whatever the pull they feel, we ­currently react with puzzlement instead of genuine understanding.”

With friends in Kabul. Photo/Shearer family collection

Champing at the bit

He is the son of an Anglican minister. He believes in God but is not a churchgoer. He is, I think, a decent and kind person. I think this not just because he once drove me home from the market, in the cool MG, after I almost keeled over – although I do base that observation a bit on that fact because: what a gent.

You can see that, after having spent his earlier career in the humanitarian aid business in tough places such as Iraq and Somalia, he is resilient – and that having been stymied in opposition where it is almost impossible to make a difference, he is champing at the bit to get back to trying to make a difference, because it is the right thing to do.

Still, he does appear to have what most people would regard as a strange impulse to take on impossible jobs. He likes to make that old joke (which is not really a joke) about leader of the opposition being the worst job in the world. But you are not doing it living in a compound in Jura – half a world away from your family. As least he’ll be well paid. The UN job pays about US$200,000 a year, tax free.

With Peni, his Fijian close protection in Iraq in 2009. Photo/Shearer family collection

A burning question from a ­constituent: what on earth does one pack to take to South Sudan? “Well, you pack a suit, believe it or not. The South Sudanese are very formal in terms of meetings and that sort of thing.”

But what can he do, really? “Well, years ago, when I was doing ­humanitarian work, there was always the feeling that what you were doing was providing food, or providing a Band-Aid. But the bigger issue was always around the politics or the conflict or the ethnic tension or whatever was the issue that needed to be resolved – in order to resolve the ­humanitarian problem. And I always wanted to do that.”

What he likes doing is “being a leader”. I’m afraid I rudely shrieked in disbelief at that. He is off to head a peacekeeping outfit when he couldn’t keep the peace in his own party. Is that ironic? “Yeah,” he agrees, hardly sourly at all. Perhaps he wasn’t tough enough. “Umm. ­Possibly. Probably because I wasn’t perceived as being left enough; as too much of a centrist.”

A funny thing happens to leaders of political parties, he says. At least a funny thing happened to him. He’s smart and articulate and he came across as bumbling and hesitant. He was pretty bad, I say, to which he replies: “Thanks.” Well, he was. But why was he? He says he listened to too many people telling him what to do and how to be and stopped listening to himself. He was given, he says, a year’s training on how not to answer questions. “And I just, in the end, said: “Actually, I’m just going to answer this the way I want to answer it. This is how I’m going to do it and if you don’t like it, tough.’” So he got tough, but too late. “It was too late by then, yeah. I should have done it earlier.”


Shearer. Photo/David White

Shearer digesting the day’s events at the 2012 Labour Party conference. Photo/David White

Now his political career is over, the commentary has been almost universally kind and laudatory. Even right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton said he could have been a great prime minister. “Oh. That’s really nice of him.” There is an air of wistfulness about many of the comments: he could have been a great PM. Bittersweet, again? “It would have been nice if they’d said the same thing before I stood aside. Oh, look, I would have loved to have been the prime minister.” John Key sent him a “really gracious text saying ‘good luck’ and that it was a privilege calling me a parliamentary colleague”. He did, by the way, for a fleeting second, after hearing the news that Key had stood down, think: “Ooh. Is this the right thing to do?” Then he thought: “Nah. This is the right thing to do.”

He went to the traditional Christmas party with the parliamentary press gallery the day he resigned. “So I thought: you can’t beat that. In previous years I’d gone on into the early hours, but I got to about 10.30pm and thought: ‘This is enough for me. I’m checking out.’ You end up having the same ­conversations with the same people again. I found myself talking to people and I thought: ‘You know, I’m probably never going to get in contact with you ever again.’ ­So … Yeah.”

And yet here he is having the same conversation again with people like me about people like Cunliffe. He responded to my interview request with “Happy to. For a constituent.” Which was a nicely done response, from a politician. I can imagine him laughing as he typed it. Still, you’d think the last thing he’d want to do – given that he insists he’s not bitter; that he never looks back – is go back over all that poisonous stuff. I think there is an element of catharsis in doing it. He can answer any question the way he wants to now. That’s a sort of freedom, the sort you can imagine an escapee from that particular asylum might take a modicum of enjoyment from.

Photo/Simon Young

Absolutely desperate

From one snake pit to another? The UN’s reputation in South Sudan has come under severe criticism. “Well, look, its reputation is in part a function of the almost impossible task that’s been set.”

I still wasn’t entirely sure about the definitive answer to the question: why would the man who could have been a great PM sod off to South Sudan, to attempt yet another impossible task? “Here’s 10 million people, in the world’s newest country, in an absolutely ­desperate situation and you may be able to do ­something to help.”

His son – optimism obviously runs in the family – gave as good an answer as any. Asked what he thinks of his father going to South Sudan, he says, “Well, it’s got to be better than the shambles you’re in at the moment.” Well, I say, good luck and try not to get shot. “I’ll try,” he says, cheerfully, as you might expect for a man happily fleeing one war zone for another.

This article was first published in the January 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zealand
104817 2019-04-21 00:00:00Z Music

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zeal…

by Russell Baillie

The jazz songstress is staying inspired by writing with others.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians should be hurt by Israel Folau
104814 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians shoul…

by Bill Ralston

Israel Folau’s social-media post might condemn the Wallabies to Rugby World Cup hell, but the rest of us should ignore him.

Read more
What happens next with the Mueller report?
104863 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z World

What happens next with the Mueller report?

by Noted

Did Trump “corrupt” with intent?

Read more
The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more
How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more