David Shearer: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Former MP for Mt Albert and leader of the Labour Party David Shearer is now The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Mission in South Sudan

“I had the greatest advantage in life – a fantastic childhood. My father was a primary school principal, and my mother was the secretary at another school. I had a younger brother and sister, we went to church on Sundays, and played cricket in summer and rugby in winter. When I was about 8, some friends who were keen sailors took us out on their boat. On the basis of that, Dad went to night school and built a boat so, as kids, we sailed and sailed. At 16 I also built a boat, but I wasn’t allowed to start until I’d finished my School Certificate exams.

“My mother died five years ago and, as we sat around her bed, my brother and sister and I decided to put some of Mum’s estate towards a boat. We found one called Bloodline, the perfect name for the perfect boat, and it helps keep us close. Mum would have approved. One day, I hope to do some ocean sailing, possibly even around the world – it’s always been a dream

“I had some terrific teachers at school and I thought they had a great life, so I did my teacher training then went overseas. I got a job taking tours from London to Kathmandu and, in my downtime, took off with five friends to Egypt, headed south to the source of the Nile. There were epic train rides, and a ferry up the Nile for several days from south of Khartoum to Juba. Juba is now part of South Sudan, so in some ways, being there now, life has been like a circle for me.

“From Juba, I hitched a ride to Kenya on a Somalian truck, going through some of the territory that is now part of my mission. Following years of fighting, they were in the middle of a terrible drought, and we’d stopped somewhere and were peeling mangos and throwing the skins and bits of stale bread we’d found in the bottom of our packs over the side of the truck. We soon realised there were kids below us, fighting over those scraps. To see something like that, you can’t just walk away, and Elizabeth, who I was travelling with, went and worked for Save the Children in South Sudan. As a nurse, she had marketable skills, while I didn’t really have any so I returned to New Zealand to teach while doing my Masters in development studies and resource management, before joining Save the Children as well.

“My first aid role was in Sri Lanka during the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers in the north. We were seen as a neutral group, so we did things like run medicines, food and even exam papers across the frontline, so the kids could sit them. We even brokered a ceasefire during exams, as shooting isn’t exactly fair on children when they’re trying to concentrate, but the ceasefire collapsed after a day and a half, but we still went around the schools to drop the papers off and, a few days later, took them back to Colombo for marking. That experience saw conflict and post-conflict become my specialty and, once you’re in it, and understand the lines that need to be followed in insecure situations, you find out what you can and cannot do. And, when you’re able to deliver relief, everyone is so grateful. It’s like when there’s a car accident, people are desperate for an ambulance, and we were like that ambulance.

“I met Anushka, my wife, in Auckland. She interviewed me to be a flatmate in her house, and over time we moved in together. She joked that she really just wanted someone to mow the lawns for free. We later worked together for Save The Children in Somalia. Everybody there carried a gun, AK47s slung across shoulders, and each area was run by a warlord. There were ex-soldiers everywhere, men who’d been wounded, missing legs and arms so they couldn’t fight anymore, and had no way to sustain themselves. They were desperate and would hang around our gate, asking for money. We did as much as we could, but we were also feeding kids on an industrial scale, up to 30,000 at any one time. There was so little food, and children had to be on the verge of starving to make it into our programme, because we didn’t have enough to feed the healthy kids as well.

“In Somalia we were bottom-of-the-cliff operators, we certainly didn’t have the resources to feed ex-soldiers, so they got frustrated and a group of them broke into our pharmacy and held it up at gunpoint, then they came to our office. One evening I got a call on the walkie-talkie to say Nush has been kidnapped. They had taken her to another property, with a gun to her head and said, ‘Unless you give us a job or money, we’re going to shoot her’. We went back and forth, trying to get her released. The thing with those guys, we couldn’t give them everything they wanted but at the same time I didn’t want my wife shot. We ended up with a compromise that left everybody with pride intact and Nush safe.

“We went to Rwanda next, straight after the genocide that killed over 800,000 people. It was during a stint in Geneva for the UN when we started thinking about having kids. We were both a bit older, and not having much luck so we decided to adopt. In 1999, after making inquiries, we were put in touch with a little Russian boy who we fell in love with. We came back to New Zealand with him and, 18 months later went back to Russia to adopt a delightful little girl from the same orphanage. Adoption is a wonderful thing, both morally and philosophically, and we immediately loved them to bits.

“Back in New Zealand, I worked as an advisor for Phil Goff in ’99, then stood for Parliament in 2002 in Whangārei, but I didn’t win. There’s nothing like not winning an election, when you open your diary the next day, and the pages are all blank for the rest of your life. Then a friend called and said, ‘I heard you didn’t get in, do you want to come and work in Afghanistan’?

“A year later, when my son was about 9, we went to Jerusalem as a family. We lived in a lovely old Arab house, and each day I’d travel to Gaza and the West Bank to support the thousands of Palestinians who were suffering when conflict between Palestinians and Israelis was at its peak. In 2006, when war broke out in Lebanon, we tried to keep the news from our children and would turn off the TV whenever the news came on. Inevitably, I was asked to go there and I needed to leave early the next morning. That night when I said goodnight to my son, he asked, ‘You’re going to Lebanon aren’t you’? ‘Yes, I am’, I replied. And he said, ‘Papa, I love you, but don’t do anything stupid’. A week later, we’re driving in Lebanon, and Israeli jets were bombing the road a few hundred metres ahead of us and I thought, ‘This is pretty stupid, I shouldn’t be here’, and that became a bit of a motto for our family. When I went to South Sudan, my son gave me a keyring that says: ‘Don’t do anything stupid’.

“Working overseas taught me that the buck stops with politicians, and if you want to implement real change, the best way is through politics. I’d been headhunted to go to Iraq as deputy of the UN when a year later Phil Goff called to say that there was to be a byelection in Mt Albert, and would I like to run for selection as the Labour candidate. It wasn’t an easy decision, my UN career was taking off, but political change was something I believed in, and this chance might never come up again. The kids were also about to start high school, and we wanted them to have a sense of place, to grow up as Kiwis.

“I went into politics with hope and optimism and came out the other end a bit disillusioned. Looking back, I was thrown into the fire before I had really established real roots in the party. Also, I’d been out of the country for many years, so people would be talking about events that’d happened and I had no idea about. I worked seven years in opposition, and I’d like to have got into government and been a minister but it hasn’t been all lost, and I approach the job I do today in a different way than I would if I hadn’t been a politician.

“I found the leadership role pretty tough, but it was also incredibly rewarding. We were on the right track but, politics is about talent, luck and timing, I won’t talk about talent, but luck and timing didn’t come together. However, I did get a taste of what could be achieved if you’re prepared to be bold. Many of my friends are ministers now. I think I could’ve done a good job, but it didn’t happen. I got the leadership a little early, but at the time I jumped in as that’s the way I work. Where I’m sitting now, I don’t have any regrets although I had some when I left. Then, at the end of 2016, I was literally walking down Lambton Quay when the UN called. Would I be interested in heading the operation in South Sudan? I didn’t hesitate.

“The year I arrived, 2017, one million people fled the country as refugees. There’d been widespread fighting, villages burned, countless people killed, sexual assaults were off the charts. Since then we’ve got a ceasefire, then a peace agreement and in February the different parties came together to form a transitional government. There are still lots of problems, but death and destruction have decreased and we’re working on building the basis for a constitution, trying to make the transition from warring parties to political parties. Our mission is now the largest peacekeeping operation in the world, with around 20,000 troops and civilian staff. We’re a temporary presence, but we try to lead from behind to work towards building a durable peace.

“If you start making comparisons, you get lost. I arrive in New Zealand from South Sudan and it’s different but I separate the worlds. You ask me – how’s South Sudan? Where do I start? I have close friends and family I talk to, but generally I just prefer to move the conversation on and say, ‘I see you’ve painted your bathroom’. It’s easier that way.

“Service is a huge part of what I stand for and I’ve always gravitated towards leadership roles, but not in an ambitious way. Being the leader in this mission in South Sudan is incredibly rewarding. It is a remarkable privilege to do this work and I work with some great people. It can also be quite fun, but it’s tough, it takes it out of you, so the trick is not to overstay your welcome. You do what you can, then pass the baton on.”

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