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Super-Dave to Labour’s rescue?

David Shearer may be yet another white, middle-class male, but he may also represent Labour's best chance at redeeming itself.

David ShearerLike a lot of Labour MPs before the last election, would-be leader David Shearer cut a somewhat gloomy, aimless figure.

He was disengaged from his science and innovation shadow portfolio, fed up with the routine inanity of internal party politics, and staring certain electoral defeat for his party in the face.

Here was a guy wasting away in Opposition, fielding calls from the United Nations about a top job in post-Gaddafi Libya one minute, and drawing school raffles the next. Compared to his stints in Liberia, or the Somali aid camp work that earned him and his wife, Anuschka Meyer, the Herald’s New Zealander of the Year Award in 1992, it must sometimes have seemed a tad pointless.

Indeed, it was far from clear Shearer even wanted to be in Parliament, despite choosing more than a decade ago to return to New Zealand to make a political contribution here.

He shares that ambivalence with David Cunliffe, his rival for the Labour leadership. Cunliffe was widely rumoured earlier this year to be considering quitting politics, and is thought by colleagues to be likely to force a by-election by resigning from Parliament if he doesn’t win the leadership now that it’s up for grabs.

It’s in large part this lack of conviction that means Cunliffe – who is otherwise a seasoned performer in the House, an able thinker with Cabinet experience, and has reasonable media skills – is so far from being a shoo-in to the Labour top spot.

Shearer is far less of a known quantity, although Labour itself is largely to blame for that. Despite, or perhaps because of anointment by Phil Goff, in whose office he worked until 2002, Shearer was shunted far down the Labour list that year and failed to make it into Parliament, despite returns by many a has-been.

He went back to the nomadic life of international humanitarian trouble-shooter, including a leadership role at the UN in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

It wasn’t until Helen Clark’s departure for her UN gig that Shearer was parachuted into the Mt Albert electorate in June 2009, putting neighbouring Labour MP Phil Twyford’s nose out of joint in the process.

As a consequence, one of Labour’s most promising recruitments in years has spent far less time in Parliament than would be ideal, has yet to find his feet in the House, and has made no policy mark.

A speech delivered on Monday this week to a tertiary education conference was unusually frank about Labour’s need to change and for failing to “emerge as the party voicing the dreams and aspirations of New Zealanders”.

It was obvious to anyone watching that this was a would-be leader’s speech. But in identifying a need to “rethink the way we harness our science and innovation, and the way we unleash for people new opportunities in education and training”, Shearer was hardly breaking new ground.

If he wins the Labour leadership, he will need to hone a much sharper vision. Tales of derring-do from his legendary past will get him only so far. Most importantly, he will need to pack around him the best team he can muster while rejuvenating a front bench that will be shorn of old faces including Goff, Annette King, Maryan Street, and perhaps even Trevor Mallard.

On the plus side, he is a fresh face, untainted by close association with the Clark administration and virtually ignorant of life in New Zealand during the Lange years, since he was out of the country at the time. He has yet to be exposed for anything as naff as Cunliffe’s infamous “I am Harvard” poem.

However, freshness is not enough. Shearer would need to show quickly the abilities as a leader and manager that saw him thrive in so many crisis roles in his international career.

Admittedly, he’s another white, middle-class male, but such creatures still occasionally prove useful and, if anything, Shearer comes across as such a nice guy, some will wonder if he’s almost too nice.

But in the absence of better options – Shane Jones, for example, still has years of redemptive effort ahead to put the porn scandal behind him, if he ever can – Shearer may yet be Labour’s best chance.