Cunliffe's worst day

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 05/03/2014

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David Cunliffe faced his worst day as Labour leader yesterday after admitting to a lapse of judgment over a trust that channelled anonymous donations to his leadership bid.

He was then forced to watch as National crowed over the accidental leak of his party’s information technology to a government minister.

The leak included a private speech he had given as information technology spokesman disclosing Labour’s plans for computers in low decile schools.

Cunliffe said in retrospect he should not have used an anonymous trust to collect funds during his run-off against Grant Robertson and Shane Jones last year.

‘‘I don’t think in hindsight that a trust structure fully represented the values that I would like to bring to this leadership, and that’s why I have encouraged donors to be as transparent as possible,’’ he said. 

He did not know who gave to the trust, but he had asked trustee Greg Presland, who was his top electorate official, to ask those donors who gave more than $500 if they were prepared to be named.

Three donors had agreed to waive confidentiality; businessman Selwyn Pellett, a longtime friend Perry Keenan and Labour party supporter Tony Gibbs. 

Together they had donated $9500.

Keenan, who works for Boston Consulting Group where Cunliffe once worked, had offered help but he had referred him to the trustee.

‘‘But I was not aware of how that ended up.’’ 

Another two donors did not waive confidentiality. Cunliffe said he respected that, and the trust would return the $8300 they donated. 

He admitted the trust was a lapse of judgment. 

His wife Karen was not a trustee but he did not know if she was involved in seeking donations. As a lawyer she knew there were some things she should not discuss with him. 

He estimated he had spent about $20,000 on the campaign to lead the party. 

If the trust had a shortfall after the refunds he would meet it. 

‘‘There may be a deficit and the buck stops with me,’’ he said. 

He did not know the names of the two bigger donors who were being repaid from the campaign trust, called the TR Trust, nor all its trustees.

His admission came as associate ICT spokeswoman Clare Curran’s office emailed an outline of the party’s ICT plan to Communications Minister Amy Adams.

Curran quickly released the document to the media, but the copy she provided was an earlier draft and Labour was then forced to release the version actually sent to Adams.

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The series of blunders fed into National’s characterisation of Cunliffe as ‘‘tricky’’ and further sapped the morale of its MPs already hit by poor polls.

Prime Minister John Key said Cunliffe’s leadership was a ‘‘shipwreck’’.

He said Cunliffe was trying to ‘‘retrofit’’ legitimacy on to his declaration on the Register of Pecuniary Interests, which requires disclosure of gifts and donations worth more than $500 including trusts in which an MP had a beneficial interest or was a trustee.

‘‘This is a pecuniary interest that relates to David Cunliffe’s activities in 2013,’’ Key said. 

‘‘So nothing he can do in 2014, including repaying the money, alters the fact that his activities in 2013 should, in my view, include who he got donations from.’’  

The registrar of the pecuniary interests register, Sir Maarten Wevers, declined to comment about individual MPs’ returns.

He said the deadline was last Friday and he would now review the contents with MPs before the register was published before the end of May.

A review of Parliament’s rules, including the register, was under way.

He said the Labour primary campaign for the leadership was new and could be part of the review.

‘‘That is precisely why I am holding my counsel – I want to ponder it.’’

- Fairfax Media

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