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David Shearer: From one war zone to another

David Shearer negotiated his wife's hostage release from a Somalian warlord, staring down the barrel of an AK47. Now he leads the charge against John Key's government. Josh Martin puts the Labour leader under the grill to see if this former UN peacekeeper can heal a wounded party and inspire a country.

david shearer the grill idealog

David Shearer negotiated his wife's hostage release from a Somalian warlord, staring down the barrel of an AK47. Now he leads the charge against John Key's government. Josh Martin puts the Labour leader under the grill to see if this former UN peacekeeper can heal a wounded party and inspire a country.

Following Labour’s thumping at the 2011 election, how has the party picked itself up off the ground?

We’re doing a reform of the party. The Labour party needs to be much more outward-looking than it has been. Also, we’ve got to be in touch with people, so we’re reflecting the issues that touch people’s lives. Traditionally though, Labour has been the party that has made the big changes – that’s what is exciting about us as well.

More employees now see themselves as contractors rather than unionists. Do trends like that add to Labour’s problems with energising the base?

That’s quite right – what’s in front of us is a lot of people working as contractors, owner-operators doing the GST over the kitchen table at night, perhaps working longer for less. So making sure we speak to those people as well is really important. The other thing about energising the party is making sure we’re rebuilding from the ground up, not top-down. Building from the base is not something we’ve done as well as we could have.

How would you describe your political philosophy?

I find my values mesh with Labour’s – it’s like putting on an old coat. The work I did overseas was about service to others and trying to make a difference. That means not just fiddling around the edges, when you could make profound changes for the better.

The work you did overseas covered war zones from Kosovo to Iraq, has that helped you in the combative political environment?

I think all your experience applies. What politics is about, and what being in opposition is about, is contesting ideas and fighting hard for what you believe in, like we have been [against] asset sales, because they’re inherently wrong. The other thing about war and politics is that you have to bring people together. Often there are issues you can have common consensus around, but you have to bring people together. I had to do that a lot in the Middle East and that built skills that are still important. For being the Labour party leader, my time overseas was leading large complex teams and political parties are large complex teams, by definition, but the focus and priorities are the same.

Given science and innovation got a big boost in this year’s budget, how would Labour encourage science and innovation in New Zealand?

 I’m not sure that creating yet another institution is exactly the right answer. The thing that is going to drive innovation in companies is ensuring they do research and development and that they get support in that.

By that you mean R&D tax credits?

Yes, that’s one example that I believe in. But that sort of money is not going to get that step change in the economy that we need.

What would that be?

It comes down to resources. We’ve got too many examples of companies that get to a particular size and then get sold off. It’s about structuring an environment where innovative companies can actually succeed and thrive. It’s about how to get them venture capital, to help them grow. It’s about how to get ordinary New Zealanders to start looking at these companies as exciting and profitable, but de-risks them to some extent as well. How can we make sure that our institutions work properly together? At the moment they don’t – no matter what people say, they don’t – I just don’t believe that.

Why did you hold onto the science and innovation portfolio?

I really enjoy going around visiting our companies, CRIs, universities, I have seen some truly amazing stuff. You see passionate people who put everything on the line including the family home because they believe in something.

How do we retain those innovators and companies?

That’s where it does get difficult. If we’re going to get in behind some companies there needs to be some quid pro quo. Selling is not always bad though, if you retain the expertise in the country. Navman was a bit sad the way it was sold off. But I visited companies on [Auckland’s] North Shore and met quite a few ex-Navman staff, so in a sense it was like a Hydra, growing more heads of innovation. We do need a few large technology companies that can spin stuff off them, such as Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and now Orion Health, which we can build clusters around.

Are we missing the boat when it comes to pioneering clean-tech?

I don’t think we’ve missed the opportunity but we’ve certainly not gone about it the way we should’ve. Here we have the best branding in the world clean, green, 100 percent pure. South Korea would die for that branding and they’re spending 2 percent of their GDP on clean tech investment, yet we’re not really taking advantage of that. The US targeted its stimulus into green technology and will emerge a different, reoriented economy. We just haven’t put it at the top of the agenda.

Which is?

We’ve focused on our traditional industries. We hope that just by putting more cows on the paddock and increasing productivity, we’’ll be able to grow rich because of Asia’s demand for protein – I think that’s a pretty shallow type of strategy, that’s shooting pretty low. Not to say that agriculture isn’t important, it is, but alongside it we’ve got to start thinking why other countries not endowed with resources – Israel , Denmark, Singapore – have exceeded us? It’s because we’re not putting significant emphasis on our R&D.

What do you admire most about the Prime Minister?

[Long pause] He’s obviously an ambitious guy, he has achieved a lot for himself.

Do you believe asset sales will come back to haunt him?

I do, ultimately it will. It’s ill-conceived. People will look back on this era of government in two ways. Things we did that we shouldn’t, like selling off assets, and things we should have done that we didn’t, like superannuation. He’s ignoring superannuation – it’ll balloon and suddenly be swamping money from health, education and everything else.

With so many opposition parties and big personalities, is there a jostling for attention?

Is it too congested? No. On many of the broad issues, the opposition is in agreement, just look at asset sales. The different parties approach things in different ways. In general we’ve made sure we aren’t too critical of each other. You don’t want to be fighting two battles on all fronts.

Has the mainstreaming of the Green Party pushed you further to the right?

No, no. We’re Labour. What we are is what we are, we don’t go out everyday to differentiate ourselves from one party or another, and our policies differentiate us.

But those policy platforms between Labour and the Greens are increasingly similar. Well, yes, they have become more mainstream, for example their mining policy is becoming much more like ours. We’re not so different on the environment any more. In other areas we are different, such as trade policy.

What are three things you want to see in New Zealand by 2020?

I’d like to see a high-value economy, orientated toward creative, smart products and services, so there are jobs here that satisfy people. Our environment and economy in sync with each other. The more our environment is protected, the more our economy is secure. The poorest of society significantly lifted and that comes back to education. A society where nobody goes without and people have some real choices.