Fishing for votes with David Cunliffe

21:46, Aug 10 2014
cunliffe land
BUOYANT: David Cunliffe has shrugged off some poor polling and is determined to reel in voters.

The fish looks good to me. I can imagine it; filleted, dipped in flour, panfried in butter, squeeze of lemon. David Cunliffe also sizes it up, literally and metaphorically, looks gleeful. A political point is about to be made, at the expense of dinner. Labour would let me eat. According to National, my meal gets a second chance: under the new rules, the snapper is a couple of centimetres undersize.

So National stole my snapper? "National stole that snapper from you, buddy," Cunliffe concurs. "Kiss it goodbye, because under the rules this is too small to keep. Isn't that a heartbreak?"

We're in a tandem ocean kayak, moored about 800 metres from the inner-city beach at the foot of Cunliffe's Herne Bay garden. Kayak fishing, he says, represents an escape from the stress of life on land, and an easy way to grab quality time with his oldest son William (the younger, Cameron, prefers tramping).

cunliffe standard
A Labour-left coalition can "absolutely" win the election, David Cunliffe says.

Cunliffe looks the part. He's shed the suit for suitably scruffy attire (old trainers, baggy shorts, America's Cup baseball cap), brings the rods, the bait, the net, and, on finding someone has flogged his mooring rope, uses a kids' skipping rope to tie us up.

I'm hopeless, so he baits the rods and dispatches the two sprats we do keep.

He got into fishing as a young man, standing on the banks of the Rangitata, where his father would later suffer a fatal heart attack, baiting his hook.


Once he arrived in Auckland he took a half-share in a boat (long since given up due to lack of time) but now this is his only outlet.

If there's an accusation that there are many faces of David Cunliffe, then today it's Cunliffe the Outdoorsman who looks around and considers: "I really love that in a city of 1.25 million people, you can paddle off a beach in the middle of the city, catch a fish, and know it's safe to eat, and there's not a lot of places in the world you can do that. It's really awesome, and it's a Kiwi birthright."

He's in cheerful form, overall, and not bad company for an hour in a kayak. It has been, he says, a "tough few weeks" but he won't complain (well, sort of - the Star-Times story in which a Labour insider complained about his family skiing holiday he found a "bit rich" and criticisms of his red scarf - not by us - were "pretty trivial").

Instead, his rather humble line for today is, repeatedly, to ask the electorate to give him a chance, to form a new opinion of him, to take a "fresh look": he's not been leader very long.

Later, he reiterates: "Give us a chance. Take me as you find me." Have we misunderstood David Cunliffe?

"I wouldn't say misunderstood. But I do think its a factor I've only been in the job 10 months and my opponent has been in his job for six years. I've obviously got some catching up to do. I am very open to New Zealand getting to know me more as a person: I know they need to have a sense of comfort and trust in who is leading the country."


Cunliffe says he's in politics not for himself, but for you. It's a public service.

"I was always interested in politics, even as a kid. I can remember in 1972, and I must have been nine years old, colouring in the election map red and blue".

He remembers his father, William (who would become the local party chair) liking Norm Kirk and being sad when he died. They would talk politics at home and at school, he got the cane for fighting a classmate who was derisive of his Labour support.

He remembers disliking Muldoon, voting for Lange, later on, refusing a job in Treasury in favour of Foreign Affairs because he was uncomfortable with Rogernomics.

But, no, he wasn't thinking of becoming an MP then and he says, unlike Key, there was no lifelong desire to become prime minister.

Cunliffe grew up in the vicarage at Pleasant Point, Timaru, where his dad ("a particularly good man . . . a very generous man who gave a lot of himself") was the minister; his mother, Barbara, William's second wife, was a nurse.

He says the vicarage was a semi-public, very formative experience: you're on show, you see society's problems close up, you spend a lot of time talking about values and you don't have much money.

You can see the political parallels here. He talks about his mum working nightshifts, their inability to replace a broken washing machine.

"It makes me grateful for what I've got. I honestly don't give much of a toss about material things. I am doing the work I am doing because I passionately believe it, that's the bottom line."

Yes, he says, he took a paycut to be an MP and he's confident he could earn a lot more than his $262,700 leaders' salary. "But that's not what it's about."

We don't venture inside his house, but he says: "I am proud of where we live, in the sense that it is just the product of a lot of hard work". His first house, he says was a "little square box" in Khandallah which cost him $95,000. He gives most of the credit for owning this one, of considerably more value, to his wife Karen, a successful lawyer with her own practice whom he met when both were undergraduates at Otago University.

A trigger for him was the death of his father, he says. The Reverend Bill Cunliffe died in 1991, when his son was serving as a diplomat in Washington. "I couldn't avoid the question ‘what was his life about?' and what did I want mine to be about."

His resolutions were to take a year off and study - he went to Harvard on a Fulbright scholarship - then briefly into the private sector "to work out how business worked a bit better and pay off my school fees" with the plan to next try politics.

On his return to New Zealand, he volunteered for the Auckland Central MP, Judith Tizard, in the 1995 campaign, became her electorate chair a year later and by 1998, was MP for Titirangi.

This, he says, was three years ahead of his plan.

Until then, he hadn't been a Labour member because he felt it was inappropriate as a civil servant. Had he always voted for them? "I've always been a lefty". That's not quite the same. "It's close enough. I am a long-time Labour voter."

He clocked his original career aspiration on becoming an MP - to reach cabinet - within six years. Leadership was a logical next step, pursued with a vigour that was not always popular.

And so we come to Cunliffe's demotion to the backbenches in 2012 when it appeared he was fomenting unrest against the incumbent, David Shearer.

"I definitely could have handled the media better. There was no coup in prospect. You certainly wouldn't have a coup at a conference, for goodness sake. There was cetrainly a vigorous constitutional debate of which I was a part."

He should, he says, have publicly pledged himself to Shearer. "but on the other hand, maybe people were going to do what they were going to do."

I assume here he means slag him off (Chris Hipkins) and demote him (Shearer). "I was determined to walk the walk. I was there for the team so I took my medicine, went to the backbench and did a constructive job on the portfolios I was given and stayed the hell away from leadership talk."

And then we come back to fish.

"I ended up as fisheries spokesman, which I thought was hilarious, I really enjoyed it."

Still on fish. He was discussing mussel farming at Seafood House the day Shearer resigned (days after derision met his decision to dangle two deceased snapper before the House).

Cunliffe said he had no idea it was happening.

And so now he's leader and so very carefully on-message when it comes to the caucus that some would have you believe don't much like him.

There's a lot of earnest chat about the skills and hard work of his shadow cabinet, "a pretty shit-hot team", and whenever he gets the chance he throws in plugs for his team - "well done David Parker; great person to work with".

Caucus "undoubtedly" support him: ABC, he says, means All Behind Cunliffe; rumours of their dislike are "a bit of backwash from earlier chapters of history and some fairly hard things were said about me publicly which I still maintain were unfounded".

He hasn't taken the party leftward but instead re-united them, and is "scrupulously fair" in sharing jobs around the factions.

He even does a version of that old interview tactic when you're asked for a weakness and say something like "Oh, I work far too hard".

In his case, asked to describe himself, he opts for the third-person and says: "I'd say he's a decent bloke, heart in the right place, works bloody hard, friendly enough, and has a wide circle of friends, and wants the best for everyone. Sometimes he might be guilty of being a little bit too inclusive . . ." Explain? "I try to bring everyone along. Sometimes as leader you have to make the tough calls. I'm getting used to that."

BUOYANT: David Cunliffe has shrugged off some poor polling and is determined to reel in voters.

"Absolute, absolutely" Labour can win the election, he declares.

He launches into the latest poll numbers: Labour is on 30 per cent, the Greens 12, New Zealand First four, Internet-Mana three - suddenly all he needs is Winston Peters to put on a percentage point and they're in business. And, he says, remember how volatile the polls are.

"We know the shift out of the Labour vote has gone not to National but to undecided, and fair enough, the campaign hs only just started and people haven't made up their minds," he spruiks. "I think they are sick of the Government and they want to vote Labour and they are looking at us to decide if we are ready or not and I know we are."

Labour, he says, will "keep their distance" from Internet-Mana despite Key trying to tie them together and he says Internet-Mana won't have any role in the government and no coat-tail deal in Hone Harawira's Te Tai Tokerau seat.

We're swimming in fish metaphors today. Winston is mentioned: "He will play his cards close. Like a fisherman, he will have lines on both sides of the boat and he will have lots of bait."

Cunliffe says his relationship with Peters isn't a blokey, boozy one, but a professional one where he respects Peters' experience.

Peters would, claims Cunliffe, be a "fabulous speaker". But, he thinks, Peters wants "to make a difference" and so will go with Labour. "I think he will he thinking about his legacy, and fair enough."

Getting him and the Greens in the same room? There's enough overlap he says, they have more in common than Act and the Maori Party do.

He will not talk about not winning. Nor will he talk about whether he would quit if he lost, but there's a distinct impression he wouldn't.

We paddle back ashore and as I leave, the one that got away is mentioned again. The former fisheries-spokesman-in-punishment asks how a 25cm snapper fished from a commercial boat is fine to sell, but a 28cm snapper off a recreational boat can't be eaten.

He mentions National heavyweight Peter Goodfellow's links to the fishing industry. Cunliffe the Outdoorsman weighs his verdict: "It's not fair".

Labour, he says, will give "fishos" (yes, fishos) a fair go.

Now he's asking the voter for one.

Sunday Star Times