Labour of love for the partners

TRACY WATKINS AND ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 01/09/2013
Cunliffe
Michael Bradley/FairfaxNZ

PROTECTIVE: David Cunliffe and his wife, Karen Price.

Jones
Chris Skelton/FairfaxNZ
REINVIGORATED: List MP Shane Jones and his partner, Dot Pumipi are committed to winning the leadership race.
Robertson
Kevin Stent/Fairfax NZ
PRIVATE LIVES: Grant Robertson and his partner, Alf Kaiwai.

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Shane Jones has the phone to his ear, a half eaten burger on his desk and is determinedly ignoring the glare from partner Dot Pumipi as he fossicks for the pottle of green lipped mussels he opened earlier.

She groans as he shovels them into his mouth before turning to her to straighten his jacket for the photographer.

Pumipi is the former beauty queen who met Jones on the campaign trail in 2011 when his political career seemed to have hit rock bottom after a series of blows, including buying a hotel porn video on his ministerial credit card.

His personal life was just as rocky. He and wife Ngareta split and Pumipi became his campaign manager.

He won't talk about that but credits Pumipi with putting structure and discipline into his life. Without her "whipass kind of character" to fall back on, he probably wouldn't be contesting the Labour leadership.

"I'm definitely a stronger person doing this with Dot. I'm more focused and she certainly helps me showcase the talents I do have as opposed to drifting off into constant low gear."

The list MP has been reinvigorated by the Labour leadership race; back to his old form, taking on the Labour establishment and the "liberal elites" that irk him, and bringing back memories of old-style politics.

It is a reminder of why he was marked as a future leader when he entered Parliament.

Pumipi, who is back juggling her role as Jones' campaign manager with a fulltime job, admits when they met she had no idea what she was getting into.

"You know what? I never knew who he was. I didn't have a clue. I didn't even know that he was in trouble for porn. I didn't know any of that. I looked him up on Google after that and my opinion was ‘Oh who cares'."

Jones admits it's risky to enter the leadership race, given his baggage, but Pumipi never doubted it was the right call.

"I was absolutely pleased. We discussed it, what could happen with regards to our lifestyle and I'm totally committed. I want him to win, I believe he can."

GUARDING HER PRIVACY

David Cunliffe is legendary for jealously guarding the privacy of his wife, environmental lawyer Karen Price. Nothing has changed since he put his hand up for the Labour leadership.

After the Sunday Star-Times approached the three candidates and their partners to talk about the race Cunliffe has been on the phone, telling Jones he and Robertson had a "gentleman's agreement" not to involve their families.

Cunliffe is unapologetic about that.

"Shane's got a different approach to this; that's fine; Grant and I have got a gentlemen's agreement we're not going to showcase family and that's partly out of respect for his circumstances and that's that."

To underscore his point, Cunliffe is monosyllabic when asked about his family.

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Did he talk it through with Price before he threw his hat in the ring?

"Of course I did."

Were there mixed feelings?

"It's a big commitment to make."

Are you worried it will be hard on her and your family if you win?

"No, I have her full support."

Cunliffe talked briefly about his marriage during his campaign launch, when questioned over his $2.5 million home in Auckland's Herne Bay, a decidedly more upmarket part of town than his New Lynn electorate.

That was a decision based on Price needing to be closer to her work while breastfeeding, Cunliffe told reporters.

But obviously a lot has changed since he told The Listener in 2008 he had no interest being prime minister.

"It's a bastard of a job and I have a young family. I don't think the two would go together," he said then.

His children are older now - primary school and intermediate school age - though he would rather not give their ages.

It's a cruel job being opposition leader, as David Shearer would testify but asked if he is worried about the impact on his children, Cunliffe is again terse.

"I've got a pretty realistic idea of what the job involves and the pressure it means to family which is why I did not take the decision lightly."

A VERY CIVIL UNION

There must be few people that don't know acting Labour leader Grant Robertson is gay.

Since putting his hand up for the top job, the thorny issue of whether the Wellington Central MP's sexuality would stop him running the country has been picked over.

For the record, he is in a civil union with Wellington bus driver Alf Kaiwai.

Privately 41-year-old Robertson is angry about some of the coverage. Publicly, he is sanguine. "It's not unexpected that there is some attention on our private lives, but that's not how I define myself politically."

He's loathe to criticise party members who don't accept him. "I appreciate that there are some people for whom this might be an issue. What I hope is that, just as in the past when we first got a woman leader of the Labour Party, people understood and accepted that if we shared the same values that's what really matters."

For those not unduly pre-occupied with who Robertson shares his bed with, the other hurdle he faces is his image as a Wellington-centric former diplomat who has little understanding of the challenges faced by struggling New Zealanders.

A head boy and student politician, he moved from Dunedin to Wellington to take up a job with foreign affairs. He also spent five years working in Prime Minister Helen Clark's office. Although he admits to being "Presbyterian middle class," his family faced tough times when his accountant father, Doug, was jailed for stealing $120,000.

Robertson tells of taking newspaper clippings of the court case to prove he was entitled to a student allowance.

"I have times in my life when things have not been straightforward for me or my family. My father did spend time in prison . . . that was an incredibly challenging time for my family, the huge pressure that that put on my mother. I learned a lot from that."

Home life is now more settled, but hectic, and Robertson consults his diary to schedule time with Alf. After a whirlwind first week of campaigning, he spent only a few precious hours at their Wilton home on Friday night, before kicking off a countrywide road show yesterday.

The couple returned from a New York posting early because Alf missed his children from a previous relationship. The blended family has blessed Robertson with a 2-year old granddaughter.

"I am very happy and comfortable with who I am. I could probably loose a few pounds though," he says chuckling.

- Sunday Star Times

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