Parliament has started the final countdown to the election with Prime Minister John Key jettisoning an MP in disgrace while Labour leader David Cunliffe has admitted he was wrong to take a three-day break when his party was struggling in the polls.
In a frenetic day Key and Cunliffe went head to head at a local government conference in Nelson before racing back to Wellington to face off again in Question Time on the first day of a two-week sitting before Parliament rises for the campaign.
The House itself was in a sombre mood expressing its horror over the Malaysian plane crash and events in Gaza.
In between the two leaders’ clashes, National shed a potential embarrassment after list MP Claudette Hauiti announced she would quit politics following last week’s revelation she had misused her parliamentary purchase card.
Cunliffe, meanwhile, moved to shore up his position after rumours former leader David Shearer was positioning to challenge after the election.
Shearer said he was focused on winning the election but did not rule out wanting to be leader again.
Cunliffe also fronted his caucus over the party’s dire poll ratings and his decision to take a family skiing holiday.
Going into the meeting his MPs defended him, contrasting it with Key’s 10-day break in Hawaii – when Key is also tourism minister.
The party’s labour spokesman, Andrew Little, even argued it was part of Labour’s history ‘‘to champion holidays and the right to have rest and recreation from your job''.
But Cunliffe emerged promising to be ultra-careful about what he said in future and apologising for taking such a long break.
‘‘I’m happy to say that with the information that I now have about the movement in the polls, which I didn’t have when I made that decision, I would have made a different decision.''
He also took responsibility for ‘‘things I could have done better,'' including his apology for being a man, given the level of domestic violence in New Zealand. He did not resile from the sentiment but said at no time did he say, or imply, all men were perpetrators.
In the run up to the September 20 election Labour would sharpen its message and avoid distractions.
It would stress ``jobs, homes and families'' not ``cosmetics and other stuff'' _ a reference to the party’s policy on banning cosmetics tested on animals.
He was ‘‘100 per cent convinced'' it was not an MP who criticised his holiday and work ethic to the Sunday Star-Times. He said he had a ‘‘reasonable idea’’ who it was, but would not name names.
But Labour’s woes gave Key all the ammunition he needed to win the clash in the House, where he said Cunliffe had talked up more crises than he had support in his own caucus.
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