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23 May 2012

Where will David Shearer take the Labour Party?

The new Labour Party leader David Shearer has adopted the outsider's approach to politics in New Zealand.  He has staked out the moral high ground by being reasonable, measured, considered and collaborative.  At the same time he is careful to make few moral judgements, endeavours to work with all political factions, and seeks pragmatic solutions to practical problems.

All politicians find value in portraying themselves as the outsider who rises above the petty partisanship of day to day politics.   Shearer is different, in that he doesn't need to try.  He  retains the outsider's mindset which he acquired during the decades spent as a UN functionary in the world's trouble spots.  When he was parachuted into the Mount Albert seat, and then into the leadership of the Labour Party it would have seemed not unlike another UN assignment: being flown into Baghdad or Mogadishu, setting up an office, finding the lie of the land, getting to know the main players, and then getting down to business in the usual measured and disinterested manner.

It was also no great surprise that the Labour Party, reeling from electoral disaster, sought salvation in David Shearer.  Could the man from the UN who had "saved fifty million lives" not also save fifty Labour seats in the New Zealand parliament?.

Apart from that, the values which Shearer represents, and particularly his United Nations connection had a strong appeal to the Labour psyche.  From the days of Prime Minister Peter Fraser Labour has been an internationalist party. Another former Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark, effectively abandoned the defeated New Zealand Labour party to take up a post with  the United Nations in New York. Under Clark's administration New Zealand had entered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were without merit of justice or serious prospect of victory, on the strength of the argument that they were endorsed by resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.

Even while it is apparent that the United Nations  has become a corrupt and pliant tool of the major powers, the Labour Party's affection for the United Nations is based on long-established principle.  Labour is the party of benevolent social democratic internationalism, and its ties to fraternal parties in other countries have been important.  This has particularly been the case with respect to the Labour Party of Great Britain.  It is more than a matter of ideological affinity. The working and middle classes that traditionally supported the Labour Party in New Zealand included large numbers of British immigrants, and their first generation of descendants, to whom Britain was still "home" and to whom British social democratic ideals were still of great practical relevance. Prime Minister Michael Savage declared "where Britain goes, we go; where she stands we stand". Labour politicians like Austin Mitchell and Bryan Gould moved freely between the New Zealand and United Kingdom party, Prime Minister David Lange had personal connections to the UK, and Helen Clark collaborated closely  with British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Labour Party tendency to maintain particularly close relations with progressive social democratic organisations overseas, and in the UK in particular, also reflects the seminal role played by benevolent imperialism (or, more correctly, imperial benevolence) in the foundation of the New Zealand state through the treaty of Waitangi and the establishment of British sovereignty under the moderating influence of the Church of England.  All these factors define the New Zealand Labour Party in ways which make its transition from the internationalism of the empire to the internationalism of the United Nations a natural one.  And it is not unnatural that the party should choose as its leader an internationalist whose New Zealand roots do not go deep, a man who finds his inspiration in Finland rather than Taumaranui or Geraldine, whose touted successes were in Baghdad and Mogadishu rather than Tauranga or Greymouth, a man who is measured, reasonable and diplomatic but for better or worse is not really "one of us".

Leftists are often puzzled as to how the "National" party, which has slavishly followed the United States in international affairs, can claim to be more "nationalist" than the Labour Party, which has at least been more hesitant and guarded in its support for US policy.

The reason is this: the Labour party is a party of principled internationalism, or, if one prefers, benevolent imperialism.  In that sense, David Shearer is the epitome of Labour values.  The National Party on the other hand is the party of unprincipled nationalism based  primarily on personal and class interests.  However there is a real degree to which those personal and class interests coincide with the interest of the nation as a whole. National has kowtowed to the United States in the period since the Second World War because, rightly or wrongly, it saw the good will of the US as crucial to the interests of New Zealand farmers and businesspeople.

This "nationalist" desperation to embrace major foreign powers can be traced back to the earliest days of the New Zealand state.  In 1870, when British imperial troops left New Zealand after the end of Waikato and Taranaki wars, there was a feeling among settlers that they had been abandoned by Britain, and a settler movement developed in favour of union with the United States.  That movement faded when it became apparent that Britain would retain, or renew its interest in New Zealand, but it has more recent parallels, namely in the post World War II era when the National Party (not so much the Labour Party) moved from the British to the American camp, and more recently still when the National Party has attempted to have a foot in each of the Chinese and American camps as the two great powers struggle for economic and military supremacy.  The National Party has no love of China or the Chinese.  For half a century in alliance with the United States it engaged in a futile effort to militarily contain, and if possible destroy, the Peoples Republic of China.  Now that the PRC is New Zealand's second largest trading partner, and Chinese are a significant ethnic minority within New Zealand, the National Party feels it must extend the hand of friendship. That friendly approach to China, as both China and the United States are aware, only goes skin-deep however.  If the US is successful in setting up a Trans Pacific Partnership trading bloc which draws the minor states of the Asia-Pacific region more closely into the American orbit, then the National Party would adopt a less accommodating attitude to China and the Chinese overnight.

Labour under David Shearer has taken the anti-Chinese, and, by tacit implication, pro-American line.  It may have done so in part to differentiate itself from National and in part to ride the recent wave of "nationalist" feeling within New Zealand, but the fact remains that the left (which includes the Green Party) is concerned with matters of identity where the right (which includes the ACT party) is largely driven by material interest.  The result has been a counter-intuitive political positioning in which the left has taken up the anti-Chinese and implicitly pro-American line, while the right appears to be championing the rights of Chinese investors in New Zealand.

The left as a whole perceives the New Zealand identity as being fundamentally Anglo-Saxon.  It is not just a question of race loyalty, but of bonds formed between Britain and New Zealanders of British descent through a common language and culture, and shared political institutions.  In the course of his UN career David Shearer routinely collaborated with US personnel and policies in countries like Somalia and Iraq.  Green Party leader Russel Norman celebrated his ascendancy to the leadership of the Party with a State Department sponsored tour of the US.   Given a choice, Labour and the left generally would rather retain the special relationship with Britain, but the United States is the next closest, and therefore next best, thing to Britain.  The right, being more directly linked to business interests, is less concerned with issues of identity, history, and sentiment than the left, and more concerned with the immediate economic ramifications of policy decisions.

The touchstone for this new conflict between left and right has been the purchase of the "Crafar farms" by a Chinese company.  The left has opposed the deal because of the probably mistaken belief that the outcome for New Zealand will be more favorable if the likes of Sir Michael Fay were to gain control over the farms.  Although a favoured friend of the fourth Labour government, as a leading recipient and stripper of state assets Michael Fay has done New Zealand no favours.  Are our memories really that short? Should we really suppose that people like Michael Fay would serve the national interest better than a Chinese agri-business corporation?

On the other hand the right suffers from the equally mistaken, but widespread belief that foreign trade and foreign investment  - whether from China or any other source - are the principal requirements for the survival and progress of the nation.  Foreign trade, foreign  investment and foreign alliances are only necessary for  politicians who have chosen to regard them as such.  Political parties claim to be responding to the inevitable in such matters, but in truth they are making a choice.  Most often, a bad one.

The belief that salvation will come from without is symptomatic of the colonial mentality of  New Zealand's political classes.  Who could have forgotten how that same mistaken belief led the National Party, and then the ACT party, to embrace another internationalist, Don Brash, after he was parachuted into the top echelons of those parties?.  The consequences for both National and ACT were little short of a disaster.

David Shearer is a different person and a very different kind of politician to Don Brash, but like Brash he was brought in to lead the party (and by design the country) from outside, and like Brash he has a limited understanding of how ordinary New Zealanders work and think.  Political ring-ins are not necessarily a bad thing.  They can bring a breath of fresh air to the smoke-filled rooms of party politics.  Nor are they necessarily destined to fail.  John Key with whom the Labour Party likes to compare David Shearer, and who was almost as much a political ring-in as Don Brash, has survived into a second term of government.  Yet Key is a weak politician, who has survived only because his fundamental weakness of character has been concealed from the general public by a sympathetic fourth estate.   Shearer cannot expect to receive the same soft soap approach from the media, and it is also instructive to recall that for all the claimed "fifty million lives saved" David Shearer was part of the legacy of failure in Somalia and Iraq.  So what chance he can save the Labour Party?