Cunliffe: cleanout needed now

TRACY WATKINS AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 03/12/2011

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Election 2011

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Battle-lines are being drawn in the Labour leadership stoush as the team backing former finance spokesman David Cunliffe signals sweeping changes from the top down, including a cleanout of the party's old guard.

Only Mr Cunliffe and Mt Albert MP David Shearer remain standing after Phil Goff's former lieutenant, David Parker, unexpectedly withdrew from the race on Monday. This apparently followed a switch by several of his backers to the Shearer camp, and concern about his private life being dragged through the media.

Mr Parker's relationship with Barbara Ward, the former partner of Kiwi rocker Chris Knox, has been the subject of media speculation in the past and his pitch for the leadership had sparked renewed media interest.

Mr Parker, who stays in the home of Knox and former partner Ms Ward when in Auckland, has previously been upfront about his relationship with her but has always maintained that their circumstances are private. Knox was debilitated by a stroke in 2009.

When asked again by The Dominion Post this week, Mr Parker reiterated he and Ms Ward were in a "warm and loving, new relationship" but that he did not want to discuss the private affairs of other people.

Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who was previously linked to Mr Parker's bid as his deputy, is believed to be lining up as Mr Shearer's deputy. But his name was also among those initially thought to be planning a tilt at the leadership. He refused to comment yesterday when asked if he had withdrawn his name from the leadership hat.

The Shearer bid has the backing of a powerful faction within caucus, including outgoing leader Phil Goff and deputy Annette King, and party strategist Trevor Mallard.

But that team may also be counselling Mr Robertson – seen by many in the party as a future leader – to hold back from announcing his intentions until the largely untested Mr Shearer vies with Mr Cunliffe in a series of television debates. Later, they will hit the hustings at meetings with Labour rank and file.

Mr Robertson could still emerge as a contender if Mr Shearer's bid falls over. However, his rival seemed to gain momentum on Thursday after Mr Parker's shock withdrawal.

But Camp Cunliffe were back on an even keel yesterday and are understood to have spent the day crafting a direct pitch to grassroots members about a radical plan for change after Labour's election thumping.

That will pit them against the party's old guard, whom they will paint as no longer representing the new generation of activists.

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One Camp Cunliffe insider said the Shearer bid was an attempt to "put a new face on an old machine" and the leadership contest represented a generational battle within Labour.

Mr Cunliffe said yesterday that if he won the leadership, there would be a place for Mr Shearer on his front bench.

- The Dominion Post

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