Monday, June 15, 2009

Obviously crazy things they will tell you about David Shearer

The people of Mt Albert have elected a very interesting and accomplished character to be their MP.

Given his varied and successful career, and his interesting written work, it's a pity that profiles of him have been so shallow.

So far as I can tell the main long form profile is this piece in the Herald, which is fine as far as it goes, but the pointy headed academic in me is desparate to know a little more about how Shearer thinks about the world. Particularly about domestic issues.

In the absence of much in-depth coverage of the candidate there have been a long list of absolutely ridiculous characterizations. Here are some of the more obviously crazy.

He's boring:

Hmm, well as he put it this morning on television "I've never been called boring before! I just came out of Baghdad and before that I lived in Beirut and in Gaza"

But seriously, this is a case of the media mistaking the by-election candidate for the man. Matt McCarten, who knows a thing or two about by-elections, outlines the sort of strategy of playing it safe and focussing on local concerns that worked for the successful campaign in Mt Albert.

The biggest stress is dreading your candidate making a boo-boo the media picks up. You'd spend hours briefing the candidate until they could recite their lines in their sleep. Contrary to what most people think, questions are pretty predictable.

David Shearer is a model candidate who had his ego in check and stuck to script. When he didn't know an answer he reverted to pleasant generalities that may not have pleased his questioner but would have reassured his handlers. That is, he didn't say anything stupid.

He needs a haircut

I'm not joking. This was one of the wilder comments on TV3's excellent overall Saturday night coverage. I'd be willing to make a bet that some backroom operative forbade the haircut. The slightly mad scientist look made him seem down to earth and sincere, and went with the focus on local issues and the desire to be boring. Besides which he should not have had time to have a haircut, given the exigencies of that kind of shoe-leather campaign.

My own presentational tip would be: get longer trousers! The ones he wore on his first appearance on Q&A were riding up almost to the knees :)

He's too NICE for politics/that nasty Labour caucus:

Heard this one from Linda Clark AND Duncan Garner on Saturday night, it goes with the previous two.

Lets just look at Shearer's most recent job: second in command in Iraq for the UN, the world's most notorious bureaucracy. Now I know those on the right think otherwise, but you don't get ahead in behemoth bureaucracies by being NICE.

I'm quite confident Shearer will soon be across the currents and cross-currents in his new caucus.

One can think about this notion that Shearer will be somehow namby-pamby and ineffectual a bit more broadly, and here I may be drawing a long bow but I see his much publicized written work on mercenaries as evidence for the defence.

One of the few comments from Shearer that came across as deeply felt is his desire, expressed on TV3 Saturday night, "to make a difference". There's an emphasis on that word "difference" that doesn't come across on the page and makes the comment step some way beyond the cliche. Judging by Shearer's written views it seems to me that he takes seriously the need to use the tools that are at hand in an imperfect world to make an impact.

Take these opening paragraphs from Shearer's article "Privatising Protection" (in The World Today volume 57, number 8/9, page 29):

`The redeployment of mercenaries in this blighted nation would be an act of genuinely ethical foreign policy,' noted Times correspondent, Sam Kiley after witnessing Sierra Leonean women and children being killed and their limbs being hacked off in January 1999.

This view shared by a growing and diverse group of aid workers, journalists, human rights advocates and even the higher echelons of the British and US armed forces - those closest to the world's frontlines. Although seldom aired publicly, they wonder what there is to lose by using military companies to shield innocent civilians when there is no other choice.

The emphasis here is very much on making a difference and not being too nice about how that is achieved. (Nice in either the modern sense of "dull, friendly, push-over" or the Jane Austen sense of "overly particular".)

At this point in his career Shearer was, after around a decade in international aid efforts in Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and elsewhere, a Research Associate at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. This is clearly a very prestigious think tank, Wikipedia account here. It's in the mainstream of transatlantic foreign policy thought, with US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg being a former Senior Fellow and publishing in their journal "Survival", while UK Foreign Secretary went there recently to launch a nuclear disarmament policy document. It's bipartisan too, being the kind of place that invites Henry Kissinger to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. I've added their blog on Climate Change and Security to my RSS feed.

One gets a feeling that Shearer felt a responsibility to "air publicly" a community's views on mercenaries and aid, and found the right position and worked hard on the right publications in which to do so. 30 seconds on Google will convince you that his work has attracted a decent amount of interest and discussion in the foreign policy literature. Frankly this all strikes me as a good sign for his political career, but then I am a pointy headed academic in an ivory tower.

For those who haven't caught up, in this period he wrote an Adelphi paper entitled "Private Armies and Military Intervention". This is a monograph length work, published in a highly respected series. The much shorter "Privatising Protection", another piece in The World Today entitled "Dial an Army" and a piece in Foreign Policy, "Outsourcing War", would have functioned as brief, accessible, and widely read precis of parts of the argument.

His main example was apparently the civil war in Sierra Leone of which he gave an account in "Exploring the limits of consent: conflict resolution in Sierra Leone" which was published in 1997 in Millenium Journal of International Studies volume 26, number 3, p845.

I can't quite bring myself to agree with some of Shearer's opinions on these issues. Particularly when one understands exactly what sort of outfit the mercenary company that worked in Sierra Leone, Executive Outcomes, was. Take a look at "Dial an Army" if you are interested. There's also a stridently "realistic" tone to much of his writing on this that doesn't sit so well with me either.

But let he who has talked down armed intruders desperate for food cast the first stone.

Besides noting that they have been overtaken by subsequent events, Shearer did not resile from the opinions expressed in these papers. Good on him. He is still prepared to go into bat for "the women and children being killed and their limbs being hacked off". But I wouldn't call him "too NICE" to make a difference.

(My university library does not seem to carry all of the Adelphi papers, so I haven't looked at the full version. I'm not giving links to these publications since they are behind firewalls. "Privatising Protection" was discussed rather more tendentiously by David Farrar here, and "Outsourcing War" here.)

He's Clem Simich

The candidate who takes over safe seat from legendary former Prime Minister, takes his message to Wellington and is never seen again. This started with Whaleoil, was regurgitated by Duncan Garner on Saturday night (now THERE'S a surprise), reprised by Whaleoil, and reheated by Kiwiblog.

Now I would have said that the excellence of Shearer's pre-Parliamentary career guarantees against this one. But there is always the salutary lesson of Richard Worth!

He's the next Labour Prime Minister

Well really. If a beginning politician doesn't want to be Prime Minister they should find another job. But I suppose it is impolitic to say it out loud. The truth is 13 people have entered the Labour caucus since November 2008 and it's overwhelmingly likely that only either one or none of them will ever be Prime Minister. It's a much more useful question to ask whether a candidate in a safe seat has a credible case for being Cabinet material. Shearer does. He's honest about wanting to serve in a Cabinet after 2011. Good.

Now Linda Clark and John Campbell worked themselve into ectasies about the prospect of a Shearer Government on Saturday night. By Monday morning it was officially a National talking point since Kiwiblog, Matthew Hooten, and Whaleoil were all repeating it.

I should have a special category for Whaleoil who thinks that Shearer is BOTH Clem Simich AND the next Labour Prime Minister.

He's a raging pinko Commie leftie

Well someone other than a Kiwiblog commenter must have said this!

But really, Shearer lost out on selection for Waitakere in 2002 because of very strong union opposition. Has anyone thought to ask why?

Thinking about his CV, he was a high school science teacher, he did a Masters degree I've only seen referred to on Kiwiblog, he did some work for Tainui that related in some way to the environment, he worked for international aid agencies including Save the Children and the UN. He wrote papers in academic journals for two think tanks, he was in charge of UN humanitarian efforts during the war in Lebanon a few years back and was second in charge for the UN in Iraq.

He should be a raging pinko Commie leftie! What do the unions know that we don't? Why do commentators like Linda Clark and Matthew Hooten believe he will reposition Labour on issues like privatisation? and what do they mean by that? Could someone please find out and write about it?

He has three things going for him: "he's straight, he's married, he's got kids"

I'll admit, this one happens to be true but Wow! Talk about putting the cart before the horse. This is a quote from John Tamihere on Q&A. When I first heard this I saw red, I hit the roof, I phoned friends and bitched about it. But I "only" read the comment as an attack on Rainbow Labour. Could we please keep Tamihere off Q&A in future?

This morning though we had Matthew Hooten, who really should know better, characterize Shearer as "a candidate who is pakeha, male, heterosexual, a father, happily married and that's not what people associate with the Labour party at the moment".

This makes clear that this line of attack runs against Maori, against Pacific Islanders, against women, against those who are for whatever reason childless, and yes against gays and lesbians.

Is it true that Labour has been taken over by any of these groups? NO!

Lets take a look at the Cabinet of the Fifth Labour Government shall we? (This Wikipedia list has only the senior ministers but I haven't been able to find a more authoritative online list to jog my memory, so it's not 100% reliable but I am going with it. Also various people come in and leave, but by counting them all I have better statistics).

If I am not mistaken we have Clark, Cullen, Goff, King, Horomia, Cunliffe, Parker, Hodgson, Wilson, Anderton, Mallard, Maharey, Carter, Burton, Samuels, Dyson.

There seem to be 4 women, 2 Maori, no Pacific Islanders, and yes one gay man. This is out of the 16 people who took the most senior positions in the fifth Labour government. I started checking to see that the vast majority of the men were indeed married with children before it began to turn my stomach.

I have news for Matthew Hooten. These proportions are not representative of the New Zealand public at large, and it's not because there are too few white, male, straight married men with children taking up the senior positions in a Labour Cabinet.

We can only hope that a future Labour government will be significantly more diverse than this one. And, by the way, that Labour might find a woman to represent even one of the Auckland electorates at some time in the future. Matthew Hooten and his comrades on the right will have to get used to the idea that they may need to take orders once in a while from Maori, women, and yes even gays and lesbians.

In the mean time, people like Shearer and Goff need to work out how to respond to this egregious comment without accepting the premise of the question.

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