Despite my recent posts lambasting the man’s speechcraft, I don’t have anything personal against David Shearer. I’m sure he’s lovely (I’ve met few politicians who weren’t charming/charismatic/friendly in person, across the spectrum*) I’m hopeful he’s passionate and really cares …
I’m not sure about the cyborg personality he occasionally lets log in to his Twitter account, though.
You see, I have a theory about political/celebrity Twitter accounts. A lot of the received wisdom is that you have to be genuine, casual, upfront, etc etc on Twitter, and that certainly works for a lot of people (there’s no denying Trevor Mallard is running his own account; that may not be the best thing but at least it’s genuine).
But I think the Twitter audience can also appreciate that some people – like the Prime Minister – are really a little too busy to be constantly checking their phones. We hope. And aren’t really of a generation who we assume are incredibly tech-savvy, or necessarily comfortable with the speed and informality of social media. So we don’t feel particularly galled that @johnkeypm is pretty obviously run out of level 9 of the Beehive, nor that @philgoffmp was likewise for the 3rd floor of Parliament House (the obvious evidence being its complete silence since he stepped down).
The problem with @davidshearermp is that it’s neither one nor the other. So you get jarring shifts between snappy little comments about John Banks one day to empty, boring, focus-grouped, written-by-committee, not-actually-engaging-in-conversation key messages which break the cardinal rule of Twitter (it’s not called micro-blogging for no good reason, people) and expect people to sit around watching their feeds fill up with all-David-Shearer, all-the-time platitudes and presumably retweet the bits they find least soulless.
And don’t forget that classy NooNoo Zealand hashtag!
It’s consistency, it’s micro-blogging, it’s Marbo, it’s the vibe. And Shearer – or at least the shiny red automatons who occasionally seize control of his brain and typing fingers – ain’t got it Twitter-wise.
*Notable exceptions: Coddington, Brownlee, Shane Jones
As an upfront disclaimer, I’m a Cunliffe fan and an ex-constituent of his, though I have previously given the side-eye to some of his statements on asset sales.
Get your invisible hands off our assets
You know that at the last election, the one that we lost so badly, nearly 1 million people didn’t vote. Over 800,000 people: a fifth of the population didn’t vote.
Now you know, there are lots of reasons that people didn’t vote, and there were even more reasons why people didn’t vote for Labour. Let me give you just a few.
The major reason that voters didn’t vote for Labour, and sometimes didn’t vote at all, is simply that Labour failed to inspire voters that it was a credible alternative to National.
When the right-wing party says that it’s going to cut your leg off, voters want the left-wing party to say that it’s not going to cut your leg off. Voters don’t want to be told that the left-wing party is also going to cut your leg off, but cut it off a bit lower down and give you some anesthetic.
I think that’s a major reason that nearly one million voters deserted us at the last election. It wasn’t because we failed to communicate our policies. Quite the opposite. Those voters saw that our policies – with the exception of asset sales – were mostly the same as National’s. So we can’t really be surprised at the result.
Oh yeah, baby, you know how I like it.
Now, sadly, there is this one disclaimer:
I want to be clear from the outset that this speech represents my own views and does not pretend to represent overall Labour policy. All policies are being reviewed in the post-election period.
And I have no doubt that someone will argue that I am, for once, the intended audience of this speech, and there may very well be a wider strategy whereby Shearer keeps faffing on about Excalibur and Noo-Noo Zealand to appease the masses and Cunliffe gets to throw sops to the disaffected core … but dammit, I’m going to enjoy this one while it lasts.
Either that or the entire Labour leadership is dedicated to trolling me and willing to destroy their own credibility to do so, which is probably unlikely. Probably.
Let me just put my reaction to this utterly shambolic recent offering into perspective: tonight I rewatched part 2 of a great episode of The West Wing, “20 hours in America”. And this happened:
President Bartlet: The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.
Bruno (to Sam): When did you write that last part?
Sam: In the car.
In comparison, dear readers, we of the New Zealand left are meant to derive hope, inspiration, and enthusiasm for the cause out of:
When I visit some of the smartest new businesses as I go around New Zealand I see them working cooperatively to get ahead.
Almost invariably I see management and workers intelligently demonstrating good faith on all sides and a recognition that everyone’s in there doing their best.
Look, even Martin Sheen ain’t making that scripted-by-committee shit sound cool.
I said this in my last, more even-handed post on the topic, and clearly no one paid attention, so here it is again:
Great speeches are stirring and powerful and they have a sodding point, which they make clearly and strongly in a whole series of interconnected sentences. Maybe they use repetition for effect (dream/fight them on the beaches etc) and maybe they start off with a cute little anecdote … but fuck, they’ve got to have soul.
I sincerely defy anyone, including youse fullas on Twitter making statements like “but you’re not the target audience” and “they’re trying to recapture the centre, not disaffected progressives”, to tell me that “A Country That Works For All Kiwis” has soul.
That lines like:
I’d like to begin with a question.
Are you familiar with the expression ‘shadow yacht’?
… actually speak to you as a person and make you want to know more … rather than sound like the opening of an infomercial for some kind of self-actualising book-on-tape series narrated by a man with too many teeth and pretty hair.
Or that a wandering paragraph about mansions in Connecticut (probably most familiar to Kiwis as the resident state of the Baby-Sitters Club) has even half the power of any hand-written amateur “I am the 99%” sign you might have seen over the past year.
Or, to be honest, that there is anything in this set of vaguely-connected sentences which in any way can be distinguished from exactly what John Key would say in any speech on a similar theme:
I want us to become prosperous together and give everyone a fair share.
New Zealand has such enormous potential as a nation – that we really can be a place where anyone can grow up hopeful, with the future they dream of within their grasp.
Last month I gave the first of a series of speeches I’ll be making about New Zealand’s future.
I said I intend to lead a government that creates a new New Zealand.
I’ll be setting out how we get there, step by step.
I have talked about the need to lift our educational achievement and the importance of science and innovation in creating more exports.
Today I want to talk to the New Zealanders who are doing the work but not reaping the rewards.
Here in New Zealand we have been working harder than almost anyone in the developed world.
But it’s not paying off.
We are trying to succeed by squeezing more out of people, by paying lower wages than other countries and working longer hours than them.
When people tell me they’re actually working harder for less, I believe them.
Hundreds of thousands of honest individuals get out of bed each day and go to work, and they cannot get ahead.
The only difference is in the next line, where Shearer … well, eventually makes some kind of point about growth in productivity vs wage growth in real terms and somehow this is about Australia, but where John Key would … also make some point about Australia, but then move on to red tape, company tax, and trickle-down theory.
The point, yet again, is this: it may seem really nifty to those who are still hanging on to the dream of a Labour Party with guts to see a speech full of positive aspirational stuff, occasional plaintive dogwhistles to the nursing/IT 2.5 kid crowd and the contractor who wants a new van … but what is there in this speech which will make some swinging centre voter say “Ooh, I like this Nice Mr Shearer a lot more than Nice Mr Key”?
Are we seriously just going to see Labour churning out more “I like New Zealand. New Zealand is great, and our people are great. And we’re not bastards with shadow yachts, we just want to have a nice soccer camp for our children, and our children’s children” in the hope that enough Gerry Brownlee-related cockups will take the shine off Key and make Shearer comparatively brighter?
And the thing is, at its very, very stripped-down core, it’s not actually a bad speech! There are some points in there about the super-rich prospering at the expense of workers, the myth of “productivity” gains, plain simple facts about how hardworking New Zealanders are, creating real opportunities for young people … and it’s completely drowned out with smarm and cliche and significant. Pauses.
The closest we get to impassioned, punchy oratory is this (and it’s not very close at all):
We need to imagine an economy where we say: Dammit, we can have a country where everyone has enough to live on.
But after trudging through the schlock that came before it, all my brain could leap to was this.
Okay, chaps, you’ve convinced me. I may try to be even-handed, but at the end of the day, I expect more from the leader of the Labour Party, and Shearer’s speech was not bold, it was not courageous, it didn’t shake my antipathy towards the party one iota.
There are those who disagree.
There are those who, in fact, think Shearer signalling a move further to the right is in fact a good thing, and we peons who think it’s an abrogation of his duties and an abandonment of his party’s basic principles just don’t understand MMP.
In MMP, apparently, the major leftwing party should just screw the poor, jump on the bene-bashing bandwagon, and buy in to all of National/ACT’s rhetoric because hey, they can always just build coalitions with leftwing parties after the election! That’ll go swimmingly!
Right up until people point out that using a more extreme party as a cover to pass an agenda you didn’t explicitly campaign on is (a) dishonest, (b) just fucks the minor party and leaves you all-but-bereft of options, and (c) kinda what we’ve been bagging National for for some time now.
Also that whole “betraying the electorate” is definitely a vote-winner and not something an already National-friendly media would just jump on.
But hey, clearly “whether I like it or not“, rightwing vocabulary and ideas and policies are just mainstream now, and we have to work within their framing on their homeground, on a playing field which is specifically designed to lead to their kinds of policies because the rules are written by them and for them.
I guess the only reason Shearer et al aren’t folding up the party and joining National wholesale is because, um, blue isn’t their colour?
So, without further ado and besides the aforementioned “let’s kill the art of oratory with stilted disconnected statements of boringness”, here’s the problems I have with Shearer’s speech. You may note it covers basically the entire speech.
It starts with a pointless anecdote. The reason it’s pointless is that someone got hooked on the whole lamb thing, so Shearer focuses too much on the line about lambs, instead of the far better point that our agriculture-based economy can be likened to the Barnum exhibit in that it’s a sham, it’s pretend, it’s unsustainable.
He talks about “anyone who can tell you we can make things better here without making big changes” – like that doesn’t open the door to the Right saying “you’re absolutely right, so bye-bye assets and progressive tax systems – hey, you should be on board with this!”
The honest truth is that a commodities boom, even if it keeps on rolling, isn’t enough on its own to pay for what we need.
But it won’t keep rolling! It can’t! Why would you even mention this as a possibility? Why not say, “the commodities boom cannot keep rolling, and it’s not even paying for itself now”?
Why the fuck make some stupid, out-of-nowhere comment about visions being like freaking Excalibur if you’re then going to launch straight into your vision … and yet not tell us what you’re doing with it because “oh, the policy hasn’t been formulated yet”?
Also, NO ONE TAPES “KICK ME” SIGNS TO THEIR OWN BACK. How long has it been since these guys were in high school?
Why buy into the notion that “people [should] know they can get ahead”? Why subscribe to the notion we can only be happy by accruing goods and wealth? Why not “New Zealand should be a place where people know they can live well, where we’re all secure and able to live good lives”?
Why the hell is anyone chuffed with the mention of Esko Aho and his amazing achievements, when the punctuation at the end is the phrase, “Though our prescription might differ, we could all take a lesson from that”? Because what Shearer just said there, people, is “the important thing is Aho didn’t focus on getting re-elected, but screw all that other stuff I just mentioned, we’ll probably do something different.”
After emphasising so freaking much that visions are meaningless without action, that big change is needed, bite the bullet seize the day reach for the brass ring, what do we get? “A completely new New Zealand. I can forgive you if you have your doubts.”
You’d better be in a forgiving mood, David, because my doubts could create a solar eclipse at this point. We’ll have a plan! Day One we’ll be raring to go! Oh, what that plan might be? No idea. Still in the developmental stages, a bit of focus grouping, maybe a scoping document in the works, but roughly, definitely, there’s a plan, and it’s, um … get re-elected. Just like Esko Aho.
And please, someone shoot whoever thought that it made any sense to say “We need a completely new New Zealand. We’ll have a plan, Day One, etc etc, but I don’t have the plan right now, but if I had to summarise, I’d say we need a new New Zealand.”
Because that just smells like self-referential meaningless bullshit to me.
Then it’s some “I love being back here in … WELLINGTON!” cheap pop, yes we’re all so clever and awesome and yay, and question our assumptions, etc etc. and then it’s straight back into rightwing bollocks:
I believe we can look after everyone better, not by cutting taxes, but by earning more as a country and making sure that everyone gets a real chance to earn their share.
I will bet anyone reading this right now a shiny dollar that originally, that sentence included the phrase grow the pie.
To education, which apparently is the first, and arguably the most important, part of the plan they don’t have yet which will contain policies which don’t exist. Quick: to the I Worked In International Aid anecdote mobile! How fortunate David has a story which roughly equates to “I taught a man to fish and fed him for a lifetime.”
David gets nicely on board with the Crosby Textor “bag our school system but praise the smart kids first so you look understanding and compassionate” meme. We need to value teachers! Yeah teachers! This is sounding positively Labourish! Oh, wait. Just a setup for “bad teachers are bad, naughty unions protecting bad teachers, Won’t Someone Think of the Children” routine #43. David’s a parent! He thinks about parents! God help us all.
Some more delicious shit sandwich is served up:
We all have an instinctive sense in New Zealand that everyone deserves a go, and that everyone needs to pull their weight and contribute.
Labour believes that. It always has.
Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Shorter Shearer: Everyone deserves a go! And some of you are filthy bludging scum. And don’t let anyone tell you different apparently means “National are wrong to say we love bludgers. We hate bludgers. And bad teachers!”
And with a shout-out to that pointless anecdote at the beginning, ’cause everyone loves lambs, we’re out.
Are you serious, people? I’m meant to get excited about that? I’m meant to lie back and think of England and say “oh well, the media are against us and the right control the framing of the discussion, so a single sentence on a capital gains tax means we’re back, baby!!!”
Well, you can just sod right off.