Will Cunliffe's speech herald a new order?

Last updated 05:00 26/01/2014

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If the soundtrack to David Cunliffe's youthful summer was Joy Division, then we are all in for a very gloomy speech tomorrow.

OPINION: The Labour leader will deliver his own state of the nation address, in Kelston, West Auckland. New leader, new electorate, new policy. As revealed last year, the post-punk malcontents with a dystopic view of Thatcher's Britain is Cunliffe's favourite band. It was an era of the haves and the have-nots. Tomorrow - and right through the election campaign - Cunliffe will argue New Zealand is divided along those lines.

While the domestic (and world) economy is certainly recovering, Labour will stress that few people are feeling the benefits. An expected hike in interest rates this year is likely to mean many will see no improvement in their quality of life. Cunliffe is not alone in this message. Experts at last week's World Economic Forum in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos concluded that rising inequality is the single biggest risk to the world economy over the next decade.

However, for Labour, their argument may be three years ahead of its time: more resonant in the 2017 election. Last week's Roy Morgan poll, the first of the New Year, shows confidence in the Government has jumped, with almost two-thirds of New Zealanders saying the country is "heading in the right direction".

Voters, emerging from the worst financial catastrophe the world has seen since the 1930s, are tentatively acknowledging the recovery. With New Zealand back on the road to prosperity, this potentially reinforces National's assertions about competent management and austerity. National also recognises it must try to at least look more egalitarian - as last week's plan to boost teachers' pay indicated.

Cunliffe will chisel away at the "rock star economy" allegory. He will continue to challenge National's economic management, arguing the recovery has shaky foundations: commodity prices and the Christchurch rebuild. However, he must also convince the electorate that the recovery will continue to benefit only the wealthy, not ordinary Kiwi families, crippled by high costs of living.

Labour will frame itself as a party for ordinary, hard-working Kiwis: speculation is that tomorrow's policy announcement will feature a payment to low-income families. The policy platform must strike a balance between pushing the inequality message but not destroying aspiration.

It must too convince the business world the party can be trusted to nurture a fragile recovery and not mess with a (so far) winning formula. A winding back of some old policy (GST off fruit and veg; the tax-free band on income below $5000) gives Cunliffe fiscal headroom, but insiders are stressing that extra $1.5bn won't be spent all at once.

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The other challenge the party must overcome is Cunliffe's lack of profile. The slight momentum gained in last year's leadership battle was lost in the political black hole of summer.

Key, too, took a long break in Hawaii - but he still managed to cultivate his rock-star status by golfing with US President Barack Obama. There will a lot more of this Bono-like behaviour with a Royal visit and other overseas missions planned for this year.

Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis might have achieved cult-status and indie-cool, but his band never topped the charts.

- Sunday Star Times

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