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Labour conference 2012: David Shearer’s speech, the verdict (now with video)

The most important lines, at least as concerns the political drama of recent days, came at about the two-minute mark. Having spoken of New Zealanders “daring to dream”, Shearer told the delegates gathered for the Labour party conference: “We must show we’re more focused on their ambitions than our own … We must speak with one clear voice.”

The reference was clearly to David Cunliffe, his former, and most say future, rival for the leadership, and to the changes to the way a vote on that position is triggered, as entailed by yesterday’s decisions – themselves prompted by that “anxiety about contemporary leadership” [1].

And those lines were freshly minted. You could not miss them in the hall, but they do not appear in the officially released version of the speech [2]. (Update: video now posted above.)

The speech was an immense success. Beyond those vital lines – Shearer had to show he understood what was going on, to have avoided it would have looked tame – it delivered a strong pitch to the delegates and beyond, drawing on party tradition (Kirk had three mentions, Lange one) and pegging out some important differences between National and Labour. “Don’t let anyone tell you a government can’t do big things to change lives,” is not quite an exhortation to “big government”, but it seemed to do the trick.

There was genuine enthusiasm, and numerous ovations, from party members.

Shearer was introduced by his wife, Anuschka Meyer, who spoke engagingly of his efforts with her in humanitarian work abroad, as well as in cleaning the bathroom. Shearer arrived to the stage to applause and strains of The Naked and Famous – make your own joke – and began with a few jokes about mowing the lawn, before setting out his main theme, “a new direction for Labour and a new direction for New Zealand”.

The big policy announcement, a ten-year entry-level house-building programme which will, Shearer says, “put 100,000 Kiwi families into their first home” was warmly received, as were, especially, his remarks on Christchurch and education, a subject on which he right dwelled.

There were a few saggy moments – the material on asset sales, for example, fell a little flat – but overall Shearer’s supporters will be thrilled.

Shearer refused to be drawn on the Cunliffe question in his media stand-up after the speech. He conceded that “we have some issues to deal with in the Labour party” but insisted, “I am the leader. And I determine how this party goes forward. It will be done in my time.”

He refused, too, to confirm that he will call for a vote on his leadership in caucus this week. But it seems increasingly clear that is the strategy – to seize the initiative back from detractors.

There is some confusion about whether such a vote would take place under the new rules, where 40% opposition to the incumbent triggers a full leadership race, or the existing 50%. Either way, after his performance this afternoon, Shearer will be feeling, with good reason, he will prevail.

If he does win, there remains still the requirement for a fresh vote in February. And a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet is likely to follow in short time. The first name people will look for is, of course, David Cunliffe.