Labour leader David Shearer has firmly established his
brand on the party's parliamentary presence this week with his
front bench shake-up and the changing of positions of those
further down the list.
There is always some scepticism that an Opposition leader can
achieve any real cut-through with such reinventions, given
the Government takes precedence in media coverage because it
holds the reins of power. That power means media and public
attention follow the decision-making of the executive,
leaving the Opposition to fight for scraps. In the case of
New Zealand's Parliament, Mr Shearer and his team have in the
past made little headway against Prime Minister John Key and
National. The Government and its representatives have endured
through some potentially career-ending muddles partly because
of a lack of firepower from across the debating chamber.
Question time in the House remains a mystery to most of the
voting public, which believes name-calling dominates much of
the hour set aside for the questioning of ministers. But
question time is - or should be - a chance for the Opposition
to tackle the Government on issues of the day. The Opposition
has a job to unsettle the Government through probing
questions - to which it knows the answers - and to prove to
the voting public that it is ready to govern. An Opposition
must make a compelling argument as to why voters should
elevate it to the Treasury benches at an election.
Mr Shearer early in his term as leader made clear that MPs
performing well would be rewarded. It makes sense for him to
provide those people with a long period before the next
election in which to make their mark.
The return of Annette King to the front bench and the role of
health spokeswoman is a sign the gloves are about to come
off. Health Minister Tony Ryall has been untouchable for more
than four years, despite growing waiting lists, budget
blow-outs and restructuring - including that of the southern
health authorities. Mrs King is a former health minister and
will be able to land some telling blows.
Pleasingly for Dunedin is the recognition that first-term MP
David Clark has a future of note forecast for him in Labour.
Mr Shearer called him a rising star, a label worth noting as
Dr Clark moves into the important role of economic
development and small business. He will work closely with
finance spokesman David Parker, something he did in
Parliament before he was an MP.
Dunedin has a long history of producing Cabinet ministers,
with National list MP Michael Woodhouse recently becoming the
first Dunedin-based National Party MP to achieve a Cabinet
ranking. But Labour has traditionally promoted to Cabinet
politicians from the city and Dr Clark, along with Dunedin
South MP Clare Curran, are expected to represent the city at
the top level in the future. Without predicting how the chips
will fall for Dr Clark, it is nevertheless not impossible to
see him as a future party leader or even prime minister. He
is certainly regarded as leadership material.
The reality is, of course, that Labour and the Greens could
form the next government. Mr Key was realistic when he
predicted next year's election will be a ''very, very tight
With support for the Greens remaining at election night
highs, it is conceivable that party could have five ministers
in any future government, perhaps even including a deputy
prime minister. Mr Shearer has given the role for the
environment to Maryan Street in an effort to counter some of
the progress made by the Greens.
Dr Clark has been tasked with finding ways to diversify the
economy in a sustainable way, again to take some of the
attention away from the Greens. Despite the need to govern
together, Labour and the Greens are not always natural
friends, with each party continuing to snipe away at each
other. To provide the electorate with a compelling argument
on why it should vote for a Labour-Green government though,
some collaboration is necessary.
Despite the reshuffle, however, the main problem for Labour
is with Mr Shearer. He needs to find a way to connect with
voters to put him within striking distance of Mr Key's