David Cunliffe digs in amid rumours, poll woe

TRACY WATKINS, VERNON SMALL, STACEY KIRK, AIMEE GULLIVER AND ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 14:59 19/06/2014
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.co.nz

Labour leader David Cunliffe answers more questions over the Donghua Liu saga.

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If his caucus doesn't support him, he has to go.

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Michael Woodhouse
MICHAEL WOODHOUSE: Immigration Minister.
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Donghua Liu

Cunliffe at airport

Cunliffe's lack of recall

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Immigration minister Michael Woodhouse knew in early May that Labour leader David Cunliffe had written a letter on behalf of Donghua Liu.

Cunliffe has denied advocating for the wealthy political donor, but documents emerged yesterday showing he wrote to Immigration NZ about Liu's residency case in April 2003.

Cunliffe said he was the victim of a political smear.

Prime Minister John Key said he knew about the letter a couple of weeks ago.

National found the note after a background check when its own ministers came under fire for their links to Liu.

Woodhouse said he first found out about the letter on May 9. Key's office was briefed about a month ago under the Government's "no surprises'' policy.

"After I had questions asked of me in early May, I went and asked immigration officials to have a look at the Donghua Liu file to check that everything was all straightforward.''

He said he had no influence over the release of the letters by his department and did not tip off media.

Woodhouse denied National have launched a ''smear campaign.''

"No, not on my part. I'm not that interested in it.''

Labour has attacked Woodhouse for meeting Liu, after he donated to the party, but he doesn't expect an apology.

"I would expect consistency and I think what goes round comes around. We've seen that this week."

LABOUR HOLDS CRISIS MEETINGS

Labour leader David Cunliffe held a series of crisis meetings with senior MPs and staff this morning as the party goes into damage control after today's dismal poll result.

They included his deputy David Parker, former leadership rival Grant Robertson, Annette King, Chris Hipkins, Clayton Cosgrove and chief whip Sue Moroney.

Cunliffe earlier said he would not resign as he had the full support of his team and the party.

The meetings follow today's Stuff.co.nz/Ipsos poll, which put Labour on 23 per cent against 56.5 per cent for National, and revelations he wrote a letter urging immigration officials to set a time frame for deciding wealthy businessman Donghua Liu's case.

Labour is also searching its records for any evidence of donations from Liu after former party secretary Mike Smith said it was likely he had made donations at a series of auctions held by the party.

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Prime Minister John Key this morning said he had heard rumours about donations from Liu to Labour, and he would be "very very amazed" if the amount was the $15,000 earlier revealed in the media.

POLL PRESSURE

In the latest Stuff.co.nz/Ipsos political poll, Labour has dropped 6 percentage points to 23 per cent. National is soaring on 56 per cent, which would allow it to govern alone.

After a wave of dismal results, the latest poll would leave Labour with 29 seats, meaning five MPs would get the chop if the election were held today. National would win 71 seats.

Cunliffe has failed to stop his party's slide in the polls since he took over as leader in September, and is now facing election humiliation.

His support as preferred prime minister has slipped to 11 per cent, down two points. Prime Minister John Key has edged ahead, up three points to 51.4 per cent. Click here for full graphics. 

Cunliffe said the poll result showed Labour had "a lot more work to do" ahead of the September election but estimated the party's actual support was either in the low-30 per cent or high-29 per cent range.

"By the time we get into the mid-30s we are in the range when we can start putting together a coalition - and we can definitely do that," he said.

He said his plan was to get through "this period of turbulence".

He drew back from comments he made on Campbell Live last night insinuating MPs who did not offer him their full support were "scabs", a term often used in union circles to describe those who work during a strike.

Labour MPs canvassed at Parliament today maintained their support for Cunliffe.

Primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor said Cunliffe was the best person to lead Labour at the moment, while Labour's justice spokesman Andrew Little said Cunliffe had his unequivocal support.

"I'm confident we can win this election and I'm confident I have the support of my team, and what's important here is what we can do for New Zealand," he said.

The preferred prime minister result showed he had the support of a portion of the New Zealand public, and would work to get more.

Tomorrow, a pre-election window opens for Labour, allowing the caucus to dump its leader without triggering the wider vote of the entire party's membership.

KEY: I'VE HEARD THE RUMOURS

Speaking from New York this morning, Key referred to rumours that Labour had received "hundreds of thousands" of dollars in undeclared donations from Liu, but refused to elaborate.

Key revealed that he was aware some weeks ago of Cunliffe's letter to the Immigration Department was held on its file.

But Key appeared to suggest there could be more revelations to come when he stated: "Whether the Labour Party got $15,000, $30,000 or hundreds of thousands all of those things can't be reconciled."

Asked if that meant he was aware of more donations, he responded: "I've heard the rumours and in the end we'll see what actually comes out but I'll be very very amazed if the amount is $15,000."

Asked if it was hundreds of thousands of dollars, Key said: "We'll see ... that's for the Labour Party to make clear to the New Zealand public."

Labour Party general secretary Tim Barnett said that as far as he was aware, Key's suggestions had no merit.

"We're still asking and failing to get any tangible evidence of $15,000, which is now being presented by most of the media as fact," he said.

The party had uncovered no evidence of a donation from Liu in 2007, or from his wife or any company linked with him, "and that's as far as the allegations have every gone really".

"We have a donation file we've gone through and that's probably about 300-400 pieces of paper, and we've checked every name, which is what we've said publicly that we've done, and we can no more.

"So without any shred of evidence, apart from a claim from somebody who's been the subject of pretty negative media in the last while, I have to ask what more you think we should be doing," Barnett said.

CUNLIFFE TO KEY: PUT IT ON THE TABLE

Cunliffe said Key's comments were "an attempt by the Government to discredit Labour".

"The only way to change a government that is undertaking this kind of smear campaign is to get behind Labour and get a change," Cunliffe said.

Cunliffe said he was not the leader of the party at the time of any alleged donations, and if Key had evidence of undeclared donations from Liu he should "put it on the table".

"Mr Liu has given many thousands of dollars to the National Party and they should come clean," Cunliffe said.

DONATION RULES 'LESS CLEAR THEN THAN NOW'

Mike Smith, who was Labour Party secretary at the time, said he had been asked to check his memory and his records to see if Liu had made a donation to the party.

A lot of donations were made at the time through auctions organised by the Chinese community.

"It's entirely possible [Liu] bought items at auctions or whatever, and it could have been across a whole range of them,’’ Smith said.

Pinning them down would not be easy and he was pleased when the Electoral Finance Act came in because it made it easier to administer donations.

He remembered getting advice on how to treat auction items in terms of what part of the price was the sale of goods and what was the donation component.

POLL RESULTS: LABOUR VOTERS THINKING AGAIN

Stuff's polling took place earlier this week, before the Liu revelations came to light. It shows disillusioned Labour supporters were now undecided where their loyalties lie.

Respondents who voted Labour in 2011, and planned to do so in September, fell from 81.6 per cent in February to 61.3 per cent. The drop in support is greatest among 30 to 44-year-olds.

Ipsos managing director Matt Benson said past Labour voters were now unsure who to vote for.

"An increase in alternate-party activity on the Left side may have traditional Labour voters weighing up their options and thinking again about Labour," he said.

"On the other side, as the party options for conservative voters reduce, we are seeing them flock to National."

The Stuff poll also saw the Greens drop slightly from 12.7 to 11.9 per cent. NZ First also took a hit of half a percentage point and leader Winston Peters was overtaken in the preferred prime minister stakes by Greens co-leader Russel Norman.

Support for Colin Craig's Conservative party and ACT also fell.

The fledgling Internet-Mana alliance scored a combined 2.1 per cent, which would give it three MPs if Hone Harawira held on to his Te Tai Tokerau electorate.

The poll surveyed 1014 people between June 14 and 17. It has a margin of error of 3.1 per cent.

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- Stuff

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