Cunliffe walks into haymaker

02:26, Jun 19 2014


Whoever set David Cunliffe up for a Left jab over his contact with Donghua Liu this week should take a bow.

And Cunliffe should be asking himself how he was ever so naive.

If his staff could not find any evidence of him advocating for the wealthy businessman, it was perhaps understandable that he was willing to say unequivocally that he had not. After all, no politician wants to sound slippery and equivocal when they don't need to be.

But a more cautious man would have heard the hidden menace behind questions being asked by the media about any advocacy by him - and instinctively given himself some wriggle room - rather than a definitive "nope".

It is that denial, and the contrast with the criticism Labour has made of Liu's links with National, that are the problem for Cunliffe, rather than the existence of the letter itself.


The actual letter, written "to whom it may concern" at the Immigration Service, does not weigh in heavily on Liu's behalf other than to outline his plans and to ask for assistance to give him an estimated timeframe for a decision in his case.

But it does mention Liu's investment plans - not dissimilar to the comments that hurt former National minister Maurice Williamson so badly.

Having said that, a letter to Immigration is no way as serious as a call to the police over a live case.

Should Cunliffe resign as a result? His first reaction was that it was far from his mind. He had, he insisted, done nothing wrong and his colleagues' first reaction was more "bugger" than "bugger off".

But as the day rolled on, their concerns seemed to mount. Will they roll him?

Again, that looks unlikely.

The suggestion has been given legs by the Labour constitutional provision that sets aside a party-wide vote and a primary run-off within three months of the election. That period starts tomorrow.

The theory runs that from this weekend the caucus - which was stronger for Grant Robertson than Cunliffe during the last run-off and must be tearing out its hair over Labour's poll woes - could then have its way.

And it could do so without the inconvenience of consulting the membership and union affiliates who put Cunliffe in the top job.

As a theory it is beguiling, but it has its drawbacks. The main one is the public sign of panic it would display - something voters would surely punish. The second is the civil war that would likely break out in the party if it believed the caucus was using a constitutional loophole to defy members' wishes.

The three-month rule, after all, was not created to give caucus a backdoor way to replace the leader. As one senior MP explained it, it was to cover the possibility that a new leader would be needed during a time when a primary would not only cut across the election campaign, emphasising division at a time when unity was the prime directive, but also to cover a period when spending on a primary campaign would be picked up as part of the pre-election spending limits.

And frankly, with the polls as they are, would anyone want to take it on right now? Surely safer to wait till after the election, when a loss would make a change inevitable.

Yes, it's very messy. Yes, Cunliffe should give himself a strong talking-to, and yes, National has found a way to counter Labour's attacks about its links to wealthy Chinese donors.

TODAY'S haymaker poll result - a measly 23.2 per cent - caps off a very bad week for the party that started with a bad Herald DigiPoll, with a frankly counter-productive KiwiSaver policy sandwiched between.

The aim was to present a move to compulsory KiwiSaver as part of the broader - and largely coherent - economic strategy Labour has put forward. But by dropping the $1000 kick-start in favour of a $200-a-year drip-feed, it has taken away one of the scheme's strongest selling points.

The reason is understandable. Labour does not want to sock its low-paid supporters and also wants to present itself as fiscally responsible, with a plan that matches National's promise to move into Budget surplus and stay there.

An estimated 500,000 expected new entrants under compulsion would have cost $500 million in year one - 2015/16 - if they were given the full $1000 up front.

It was what finance spokesman David Parker referred to, perhaps unintentionally, as not having enough "headspace".

Drip-feeding the cash means it peaks at about $141m a year.

But it just looks like an excess of caution that waters down a policy that Labour could have trumpeted - and a scheme that it set up and can rightly be proud of - and that 2.3 million members and even National have embraced.

Yes, it has been a very bad week for Labour. Yes, things are looking grim. But Labour chose Cunliffe as its leader, for good or for ill, when David Shearer was polling badly - but nowhere near as badly as Labour is rating now.

Unless there is something even worse in the pipeline - and National MPs were yesterday hinting darkly there is more to come - it has made its bed and will have to lie in it.

The Dominion Post