David Shearer left the United Nations to take over Helen Clark’s Mt Albert electorate 2009 but it wasn’t his first attempt to get into Parliament. He stood for Labour as a list-only candidate in 1999 (position 62 so well out of contention), and contested the Whangerei electorate in 2002 (doing well but still 3,000 votes short of Phil Heatley in a fairly safe National seat).
When Phil Goff resigned as Labour leader in 2011 Shearer was selected to take over. He struggled to adapt to the role of Leader of the Opposition, not being a natural politician and not learning the rote ropes. He was undermined by some in the Labour caucus, and gave up and resigned in 2013, stating “My sense is I no longer have the full confidence of many of my caucus colleagues”.
He continued in Parliament down the ranks, at 13 until his resignation this week from Parliament. He has a new UN job trying to sort out a dire situation in South Sudan.
He has been referred to as the best Foreign Minister New Zealand didn’t have, and also as the best Prime Minister New Zealand didn’t have, but he didn’t really fit into the political mould.
Shearer gave his valedictory speech in parliament yesterday.
Mr SPEAKER: In accordance with Standing Order 360(3), I call on David Shearer to make his valedictory statement. I understand it is the wish of the House to suspend for the dinner break at the conclusion of the statement.
DAVID SHEARER (Labour—Mt Albert): Tēnā koutou katoa. The last valedictory statement in this House was delivered by my friend Phil Goff. He seems to have started something of a trend, but our speeches are going to be somewhat different. Phil’s lasted almost 30 minutes—1 minute for every year he spend in Parliament. So, following his lead, mine is going to be short and sweet.
I would like to start by congratulating Bill English and Paula Bennett—Bill proved this week that perseverance certainly does pay—and I wish them both my very best wishes. Good on them. I would also like to acknowledge and thank John Key for his service to New Zealand. I believe he showed courage in standing aside when he did.
You know, it is worthwhile looking back over your maiden speech when you depart, and comparing the ambition at that time my achievements do look a bit lean. I have not been in Government, I was not in Cabinet, and I did not even get to be Prime Minister. As the song goes: “Regrets, I’ve had a few.” But the goal is always to leave maybe with a few regrets but without bitterness. That is how I leave today, because, in so many ways, my political journey has been immensely satisfying.
First, it has been a privilege to be a member for Mt Albert. It is a real joy to both live in my community and contribute to it. I have given many forgotten and forgettable speeches in my time, but I do remember the people who have come into my office seeking support and who I have been able to try to help out. Voters in Mt Albert sit all over the political spectrum, yet they took me to heart as their MP. But there is always the odd exception. I remember standing outside Edendale School one day at 3 o’clock, as you do, handing out leaflets. A woman walked by and muttered something insulting as she went to pick up her child. She came past me again, tugging her 6-year-old boy behind her as she walked, and he looked up and waved: “Hello, David Shearer!” Sadly, I will be out of here before he gets to be voting age. To the people of Mt Albert: thank you for your support. Sorry to cut out so early compared to my predecessors.
Being an MP is an extraordinary vantage point to see and understand your own country. I have been privileged to meet many great people. I have particularly enjoyed—because it has been new to me—the access to businesses, to scientists, and to innovators that many people in New Zealand never get to meet. We have such wonderful talent out there.
The reason for my attachment to the Labour Party is quite heartfelt and very simple: over the past century no other institution has more shaped New Zealand and how we see ourselves as people. We take its boldness and its achievements for granted. But my fascination has always been with what went through the minds of those leaders before their landmark decisions, before they launched into the unknown. How did Michael Joseph Savage feel before pioneering the social safety net for New Zealanders, in a world where it had never existed before? What was Kirk thinking before deciding to send a frigate into Mururoa Atoll? Or those who sought to take a risk to settle Māori grievances right back to 1840? The Waitangi Tribunal is, I want to say, an institution that has been extraordinarily healing our country. It is simultaneously a truth commission, drafts history, acknowledges wrong, and compensates for loss. I actually think we should export it; the world needs it more than anything else.
But those nation-shaping decisions and others relied on courageous people who stood up in spite of what the polls said or the focus groups. They were big and they were visionary and occurred under Labour. They were about being progressive. So if I could make one teeny-weeny, wafer-thin criticism of this Government with such immense political capital: I think it could have been more ambitious.
Our economy still resembles the 1960s. My first speech I remember as Labour leader focused on our need to broaden our economy beyond primary products. Other like-sized countries—Denmark, Singapore, Israel, and, Mr Brownlee, even Finland—have overtaken us. Our science, technological, and creative endeavours still await the step change they deserve. It is perhaps actually our biggest challenge in this country.
My second speech as leader advocated a living wage. I think the debates over tax cuts miss the point. The most fundamental way to address inequality is actually to lift wages. Right now our taxes, effectively, subsidise those who choose to pay low wages. A woman stopped me in the street a couple of weeks ago and said she had returned to New Zealand 5 years ago and was struggling to get her small business going—”I’d have made more money buying a house in Sandringham.”, she said. Yes, I do believe we need a capital gains tax. We now spend more on pensioners than on educating our young. Yes, I do think we need to address the age and cost of retirement. Average prices of houses in Mt Albert exceeded $1 million—actually quite a long time ago. Yes, I do think it is time for the Government to get in and build houses.
I believe in free-trade agreements because we will always have greater opportunities and strategic leverage being connected than being disconnected at the bottom of the Pacific. Free trade can concentrate wealth though, and it is the job of Governments to ensure that prosperity is shared and that inequality is addressed. If there is one thing that Brexit and the US elections have shown us, it is that Governments can no longer sit back in their sort of laissez-faire splendour, as they have done for the last two generations.
Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in politics. I can tell you that without doing it, nobody knows quite how tough it is. And, of course, everyone around you is the world’s expert on what you should be doing. So Andrew, I wish you all the very best. I think you the possess the personal qualities that this job needs.
For me, the Labour leadership was a highlight and, ultimately, obviously, a huge disappointment. It is a huge privilege now to have my photo on the caucus room wall, alongside many of my heroes. And I am not going to go into the whys and the hows of what happened—there is a whole cottage industry of people out there who can do that—but I want to thank the people who did put their faith in me and stood by me. Sadly, I think we were at our best at the end.
To Fran Mold, my chief of staff, in particular, who was fiercely protective of me and who has become a good friend, I am particularly grateful. But there are other people I want to acknowledge and thank. The staff around Parliament always show incredible courtesy and friendliness, and I thank them. A special acknowledgment to the staff of our world-class Parliamentary Library, which I use so much—they are great. To those journalists dedicated to actually reporting the news, thank you. You serve us well. [Interruption] Claire Trevett said she is putting a few people together tomorrow night, just as a sort of a farewell. I thank you for that, Claire.
Thank you to my parliamentary colleagues. I wish you every success next year. It is time for a Labour Government to go boldly, as our forebears have done. And remember, wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I will be with you in spirit.
A special mention goes to Damien O’Connor, who came up to me during the 2011 leadership contest and asked whether I was going to stand. I said I was not sure I would get more than one vote, and he said: “Oh, I’ll vote for you.”, and so I threw in my name. In these contests, you understand, two votes are vastly superior to just the one.
To my electorate committee—Phil Harrington, Carol Symington, Dave Fowler, Jan Marie, and others who stood by me and did not waver, I owe you a great debt of gratitude. To my staff I also want to offer my thanks—to Raewyn Tate, my first executive assistant. I will miss Hannah Sperber’s warmth, her fine mind, and her wonderful sense of humour. Therese Colgan came to me after working with Helen Clark—baptism by fire. Five foot, nothing, of Irish descent, she is passionate and she is tough with a huge heart, and she has made a difference in the lives of so many in my electorate.
Alec McLean, who is here in the gallery today, worked for Muldoon before the Beehive was built. He has worked for Sir Don McKinnon, for Helen Clark, and for many others. When I became leader, he took a pay cut and joined me from the Governor-General’s office, and when I stepped down, he took another pay cut and came with me. Apart from his clear lack of financial acumen, it has been great working with him, and I thank him. He retires with my departure, and I thank you, Alec, for your service, not just to me but to Parliament in general.
I am blessed with a handful of true friends and a tight family. I want to thank my brother, Alan, and my sister, Gillian, and my friends Mark and Cam for always being there.
My daughter, when she was about 11, said to me: “Why are people so nasty and rude to you?”. I said “I think it’s because I’m a politician.”, and she said: “They should remember that you’re a human being, as well.” It is tough for kids to see their parents attacked through the media, and it is impossible to hide it from them. When I came into Parliament, my kids, Vetya and Anastasia, were at school, and today they are young adults, and I am immensely proud of them. My wife, Anuschka, has simply been my rock, and I thank her.
Many years ago, some friends and I followed the Nile River on a boat down to Juba in the south of Sudan, and from there we paid a Somali truck driver to take us for 4 days across the south of Sudan and into Kenya. At one of the stops we were in the back of the truck and we were peeling mangos and throwing the skins and some stale bread we had not eaten over the side, and a dozen kids below us were fighting, we found, over our rubbish. It was probably the only food that they had had that day. It had a profound effect on me. It spurred me into humanitarian work around the world, and I have been privileged to work side by side with some wonderfully dedicated people.
So when I received a call a couple of weeks ago offering a position in the same region, I did not hesitate. It was, in many ways for me, completing the circle. My hope, as always, is that I can make something of a difference. And, wouldn’t you believe it? When I was in New York last week, I remembered I had a bank account there.
Politics, for some, is the book of their life. For me, it has been a chapter. At one point I hoped it might have been multiple chapters. It is time for me to start a new chapter.
So, with that, I will say goodbye. I have enjoyed my time here immensely, and I enjoyed most of all, I think, the comradeship that I have had across all of the parties. I wish you all and your families well for the Christmas break and the holidays, and whoever wins next year—and no prizes for guessing, obviously, who I will be backing—take care of my country for me. And, for God’s sake, be bold. Thank you.