Silent T

David Farrar

Claire Trevett writes the second half of the detailed look by the Herald into the Opposition Leader – as they also did in 2008. Her story is focused on Cunliffe’s political years. Some extracts and comments:

Former President Mike Williams first impressions of David Cunliffe were not as favourable. It was at the party’s 1999 campaign launch and Cunliffe turned up with bright red hair – the result of an overzealous hairdresser for a fundraiser whom Cunliffe claims was “a Tory.”

It ensured he got a reputation for self-promotion before he even entered Parliament. The Herald awarded him “best self promoter,” reporting he also handed out copies of the ‘Cunliffe Courier’ – featuring 22 photos of himself – at the campaign launch.

That’s a great idea. Labour’s manifesto should be the same this year.

Cunliffe caught the media’s attention, if not always for the right reasons. He was dubbed the ‘toyboy minister” and “nakedly ambitious.” Observations of his talent were usually followed by a comment about his ambition and ego. He was mocked for describing his own maiden speech as “passionate.” In 2002, his supporters turned up to the Labour Party campaign launch waving placards with his name on them.

Bit of a pattern.

Cunliffe and Tamihere gravitated towards each other, part of a group of junior MPs including Clayton Cosgrove and Damien O’Connor, and dubbed themselves the “Mods” – short for Modernisers. They met in each other’s offices for drinks and discussed policies and the direction Labour might take in the longer term, post-Clark. They decided to recruit others and Tamihere says Cunliffe returned with loyal Clarkists. Whether it was innocent or deliberate, he was seen to have dobbed them in. …

Tamihere says there was no big blow out and they did maintain a professional relationship. Asked about the Mods’ goals now, Tamihere laughs and says “well, you always go down there with those heady ideals.”
“He’s an extraordinarily talented chap but you never get to see the real David. You get to see the David that he thinks you want to see. And that’s his problem.”

This is what is interesting. There is no doubt Cunliffe was on the right of the party, yet now he is trying to position himself to the left of Helen Clark.

After a lengthy review and two year stand-off with Telecom, Cabinet moved to break the company’s near monopoly by forcing it to open its local network to competitors in 2006.

I thought Cunliffe handled the portfolio very well, and he had a good legacy with the operational separation of Telecom. It was long overdue.

Cunliffe had worked with Michael Cullen since he was a junior MP, but Cullen declined to be interviewed for this piece. Cullen publicly backed Grant Robertson in the leadership challenge in 2013 – and quipped at the NZ Post Book Awards at the time he expected next year’s entries to include Cunliffe’s new book “The Dummies Guide to Walking on Water: How I learned from Jesus’ Mistakes.”

Cunliffe made it too clear he wanted Cullen’s job. Funnily enough I think Cunliffe would be an able Finance Minister.

Somewhere along the line Cunliffe earned the nickname ‘Silent ‘T’ – because of the difference inserting a ‘t’ into the relevant part of his surname would make.

That nickname started before Cunliffe was a Minister. No one knows which of hil colleagues first coined the name, but most think it was Clayton Cosgrove.

I can relate a funny story about the nickname. Was once at an MPs house and a reference was made to his nickname of Silent T. Then a nine year old boy piped up and asked why do people call him “David Cunliffety”. We all pissed ourselves laughing as it would not have been appropiate to correct Master Nine’s assumption about where the T was inserted.

Cunliffe also had to deal with the complex, politically sensitive portfolios of immigration and health in his final years as minister. He undertook a major review of immigration settings

He did that very well also. Prior to his law changes, many illegal migrants could game the system for years and years with numerous appeals. Cunliffe introduced a much better and simplified system for dealing with immigration decisions and appeals.

Cunliffe was at the function when Helen Clark ceded defeat and announced she would step down.

Immediately confronted by the media, he said he had no intention of running to be leader.

However, he now reveals that he did subsequently put his name forward at one stage because he was encouraged to do so. He will not say who encouraged him and said he did not push the matter because he acknowledged he did not have the experience in Opposition. “There was, I think, a fairly widely shared view that perhaps later on it might be appropriate for me to have a chance to lead the party.”

Tizard says she spoke to him at the time. “My view was that it was probably too soon, but my comment was ‘if you think you’ve got the numbers, go for it. If not, get the numbers.’”

Interesting that Cunliffe did look at standing, encouraged by Tizard. It was no secret that Clark wanted Cunliffe to become her successor, so he could keep out Goff.

One minister at the time said Clark had proposed Cunliffe as deputy, but Goff made it clear he wanted Annette King.

Never appoint a Deputy who wants to take over from you. David Shearer learn this the hard way.

Cunliffe was the finance spokesman when Goff stepped on the stage in the election campaign at the end of those three years for the Press newspaper’s debate with Key. Goff held until his ground until Key asked where the money to pay for Labour’s spending promises was coming from with the repeated “show me the money” refrain.

Goff foundered, failing to even bring up the capital gains tax revenue which had been released. After the debate, Goff called Parker off the campaign trail to help with the full costings. They were released in full within days, indicating they were at least almost ready.

Why did he not call in the Finance Spokesperson?

Goff says he does not blame Cunliffe for it. “I take responsibility for myself, I don’t blame other people.”

That’s his public stance. His private stance is very different.

Cunliffe’s campaign was an open pitch to the union movement and activist left. He embraced socialism, and followed it up with a brace of promises, many around wage increases and working conditions. One former colleague observed it was a canny move to target the unions. “If you want to be the boss of that mob you have to look at who’s got the organisational muscle 24/7 to organise for you.”

Boss of the mob – how well phrased.

Asked what the biggest mistake of his leadership has been, Cunliffe says it was the use of that trust. 

We should all thank a certain blogger at The Standard for his fine work in setting it up, and never twigging it might be a bad idea.

Cunliffe’s deputy David Parker publicly backed Shearer in 2011, but refused to reveal who he supported in the 2013 run-off. “I felt whoever was leader, there was a need to build bridges. And I thought I was one of the ones who should do that.”

My understanding is Parker voted for Jones, but Cunliffe was his second choice ahead of Robertson.

Cunliffe says he intends to stay on if Labour is in Opposition after the election when he faces a confidence vote. His supporters agree – Tizard points to Helen Clark staying on after losing in 1996. 

This is the real battle ahead.

There’s also an interesting article on Karen Price.

See the first part here

Political commentator David Farrar posts at Kiwiblog.

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