Cunliffe: 'I'm going to let people in'

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 23/07/2014
Iain McGregor/Stuff.co.nz

The Labour leader goes back home to Pleasant Point and gets some surprises.

David Cunliffe at home
IAIN MCGREGOR/ Fairfax NZ Zoom
HOMESTEAD: David Cunliffe has spent some time recently in his home town of Timaru. This is his old house.

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David Cunliffe just can't catch a break. Even his oldest childhood friend doesn't fancy his chances in September's general election.

''The local candidate [Steve Gibson] for the Labour party is a complete and utter idiot,'' Pleasant Point sheep farmer Andrew Steven tells the Labour leader. ''I'd like to support David but I can't support the local candidate,'' he says.

Pray, is Reverend Sue Dickson's advice. Cunliffe says he does - daily. ''You are doing the right thing ... having your faith connection when everything seems to be kind of lost,'' she counsels.

Naturally Cunliffe isn't ready to accept that's he lost - but Dickson has a point.

With just two months before voters go to the ballot box, the latest brace of polls have Labour languishing in the mid-20s. Personal support for Cunliffe has dipped below 10 per cent. Party disloyalty once again reared its head at the weekend, with an insider sniping to media about the leader's week-long skiing holiday.

In fact, the family break was just three days - and on Friday Cunliffe was in the rural South Canterbury town where he spent his teenage years.

It was part of a media drive to boost Cunliffe's public profile - and an opportunity to catch up with those he grew up with.

''There are huge numbers of people who are only just waking up now to the fact that we've got an election this year. They are saying who is this guy, we need to get to know him ... and I'm going to let people in,'' Cunliffe explains.

By polling day, he will have been Labour's leader for just over a year. His rise to the top saw his reputation take a beating. Colleagues painted him as untrustworthy, destabilising the tenure of predecessors Phil Goff and David Shearer as he clawed his way into the top job.

Another common narrative - driven largely by National opponents - is that he is "tricky'' or fake.

Over a breakfast of eggs, salmon and coffee at Legends cafe, old mates Tony Morton, Ivon Hurst and Steven say this just isn't so. All but Cunliffe have stayed locally - and they now see more of their old friend on television than in the flesh. ''Character just doesn't change. When I see him on TV, he is exactly the same,'' Steven says.

The pair were classmates all through their years at Pleasant Point High, and spent summers hunting, fishing and camping.

He's brought along an old photograph of Cunliffe, aged about 16, grinning down from the school roof. Another snap shows Cunliffe brandishing a rifle and displaying a bloodied hare he just felled.

In turn, Morton, who served on the church youth council with Cunliffe, remembers rugby games followed by parties. At church camps, Cunliffe was regularly in the running to win the 'stirring spoon,' awarded to whoever could create the most mischief.

As the four swap stories it emerges Cunliffe was caned regularly - once for letting off a stink bomb during a history lesson and another for loudly squabbling about politics.

Morton says he catches glimpses of Cunliffe's ''quick, easy smile,'' during public appearances - but not nearly enough.

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Steven adds: ''I could almost guarantee that he's got a whole bunch of minders in Parliament that are saying don't behave like that David, it could be damaging to your electoral chances ...I guess he's got to be presidential [but] I don't see that all. I just see a little boy - or a young man - but there is no faking.''

Hurst, an old family friend, agrees. ''His father would never allow it ... he wouldn't allow his sons to be anything more than straightforward, upright and how would you put it - down to earth.''

Two decades after his death, aged 76, Bill Cunliffe's presence is still felt around town. Although his son's picture hangs in a gallery of local famous faces on the cafe wall, residents point out the wheelchair ramp that Bill campaigned to have installed when the building served as the local post office.

Across the road, in the takeaway where Cunliffe used to fry chips as an after-school job, server Denise Pierce prefers not to talk politics: ''I stay away from all that stuff.''

But she's happy to reminisce with Cunliffe about his father, a neighbour who grew strawberries and conducted her marriage ceremony. ''Everybody knew Bill,' she says.

Cunliffe spent Sundays in the front pews of the stone church, where Bill was the Anglican minister.  ''It's really interesting to be back here at this stage in my life,'' he tells Dickson, who is now the 'priest in charge'.

He retells the Old Testament story of King David's against-the-odds defeat of the Amalekites that he happened to flip open his bible at that morning.  ''I thought for a random story it wasn't too bad.''

The former diplomat and business consultant once toyed with following his father into the ministry, even taking theology courses at Otago University. But he preferred politics and economics and committed to the public service instead, working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then for Boston Consulting Group before entering politics in 1999. ''I turned out to be a minister, just a different kind of minister.''

Christianity still plays a part in his life, he says. ''It's certainly true that through life's tough times ultimately we all fall back on fundamentally what drives us and I'm happy to say that there have been times that I would only have got through because of the faith that I grew up with.''

It's a side of his character likely to appeal to the church-going Pacific vote, currently disillusioned with Labour.

His father's reluctant early retirement - aged 64, after a series of heart attacks - is a topic Cunliffe returns to again and again. The former boxer opened a nursery next to their family home, but never made any money because he kept giving away plants to young couples.

Hurst says Bill, a Labour party organiser, would have been ''immensely'' proud of his son. ''Bill himself was a very firm Labour supporter, much to the upset of a lot of National people around this village.''

After his father's death, Cunliffe began ''asking questions about what I want in my obituary''.

It led him into politics, and government, where he held a series of ministerial posts. In Opposition, a failed tilt at the leadership saw him relegated to the back benches. A party-wide vote finally elected him into the top job last year. He'd convinced the faithful and the unions that after two election defeats, he could turn the polls around.

He's done the opposite, seeing Labour's support slide to a sorry 23 per cent last month.

In the last couple of months, Cunliffe's held a tenuous grasp on the leadership, forced to explain links to a wealthy Chinese donor, defend a bizarre episode where he apologised for being a man, and respond to criticism of his winter holiday.

''Life is capable of second chances  ... and there is always hope,'' he says.

He is digging in, convinced a rethink of the communication strategy and some old-fashioned campaigning will reverse the downward trend.

''I'll be honest with you and say we are all still learning and I'm still learning. Taking on the leadership a year out from the election is a big ask... it would have been better to have time to prepare there is no question about that.'' He talks about ''bringing this one home for the team''.

What's more, if Labour do lose in September, he'll intends to stay on. But the perception persists that his MPs would rather someone else was in charge - even if the party at large decided otherwise.

''I have a fantastic caucus. I think that as the leader of the party my duty is to be the leader for the whole party. So, for me, it's not about friends and not friends, it's about doing the best I can to bring the best out of each and every colleagues. I have personal friends and family of my own and those relationships sustain me.''

The criticism and pressure does take a toll. ''It's a test of character because you do sometimes ask yourself are the critics right? And there are nights when you ask yourself all of those hard questions.

''But at the end of the day you fall back on why. And I know that the only reason that makes it worthwhile is service.''

- This story has been amended. The original made reference to Andrew Steven demanding a cheque back from local Labour candidate Steve Gibson. The cheque at issue related to a historic business matter between two and was not related to Gibson's current candidature. 

- Stuff

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