A brave new start?

David Shearer appears to have made a reasonably sure-footed start to the Labour caucus leadership in the naming of his line-up on Monday. His publicised priorities were "renewal", "unity" and - somewhat belatedly - "talent".

He had to produce a shadow front bench that ticked all three boxes and, further, such criteria had to carry on down the list. Some old faces would need to be gently eased from prominent view, newer ones catapulted forward, and room made for the self-evidently gifted.

The first three positions on the list are self-explanatory, two already known in Mr Shearer himself and his deputy Grant Robertson at number two, with number three position and the finance portfolio having been awarded, as expected, to David Parker. Beyond himself and Mr Robertson, the first sign of Mr Shearer's much-vaunted determination to present a new public face comes with the precipitous rise of relatively untried Auckland list MP Jacinda Ardern, to number four, and the social development portfolio.

"Unity" arrives with the accommodation of defeated leadership contender and former number three David Cunliffe at number five.

He has been given the economic development role, with an associate finance brief, and will shadow the influential Steven Joyce, the Government's economic development tzar. Behind him comes the experienced Clayton Cosgrove who, according to Mr Shearer, will provide the "bulldog" - or perhaps the mongrel - in the fight against partial sales of state assets.

Positions seven and eight on the front bench went to Shane Jones and Nanaia Mahuta. Ms Mahuta qualifies under both renewal and unity, with a question mark over the extent of her talent. A quiet rather than showy performer, she has picked up education and associate Maori affairs and will have to prove herself in the roles.

Mr Jones has often been described as "talented" but will need to show application and self-discipline across his regional development, associate finance, Maori economic development and fisheries responsibilities.

Much attention and speculation had centred on the future within the Labour caucus of Mr Cunliffe, given his polished performances in the leadership contest, his appeal to the wider Labour Party membership and his strong performances during the last term in finance portfolio policy development and in presentational skills - whether critiquing the Government's policies or advancing Labour's.

While his position at number five signals an accommodation between himself and Mr Shearer, and pre-empts any talk of deep and dangerous rifts that would have accompanied a position outside the front bench, it simultaneously confirms a fourth, unspoken promotional criteria: "reward".

Despite a touted "no promises" approach, the bookish Mr Parker's elevation is widely seen as "quid pro quo" for his support of Mr Shearer, but his appointment to this position may also make it easier for the party, should it so wish, to revisit the bold but electorally controversial big-ticket economic platforms of capital gains tax and superannuation eligibility associated with Mr Cunliffe.

Those inclined to read between the lines may also see an element of patronage in the positioning of Ms Ardern, Mr Cosgrove, and certainly of old stager Trevor Mallard at number 12. Mr Mallard is thought to have "run the numbers" - political-speak for led the charge - in the Shearer leadership bid.

Of local interest is the placing of Dunedin South MP Clare Curran at number 20, with communications and information technology, broadcasting, open government and disability issues; and North Dunedin's David Clark will serve his initial parliamentary apprenticeship as revenue and associate tertiary education spokesman outside the "shadow cabinet". Of more general note is the emphasis Mr Shearer and Mr Robertson seem to have placed on finance, with no fewer than four associates.

A portfolio led by Mr Parker and supported by Mr Cunliffe, Mr Cosgrove, Mr Jones and Mr Mallard, none of whom is a shrinking violet, certainly has plenty of firepower. Mr Shearer will just have to make sure the bullets are aimed in the right direction.


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