Loved and loathed: the polarising politician

17:00, Sep 13 2013

It was the defining moment of the 2011 election campaign. Under the blinding heat of stage lights, the then Labour leader Phil Goff faltered as Prime Minister John Key goaded: "Show me the money."

Key had identified a $14 billion hole in the Opposition's bold plans to introduce a capital gains tax and make KiwiSaver compulsory, all while rebalancing the economy.

Floundering, Goff could only promise his finance spokesman would explain the costings at a later date. The leaders' debate was lost to Key, and Labour's campaign never really recovered from the impression they were pushing expensive, uncosted policies.

The party went on to suffer its worst defeat in decades. And in the minds of some MPs, one man was at least partly to blame: the numbers man, and former Cabinet minister, David Cunliffe.

The New Lynn MP claimed to be ill, at home that November night. But conspiracy theories mounted: some were convinced the ambitious Cunliffe had deliberately left his boss hanging.

Former party president and Cunliffe supporter Mike Williams has known the MP since 1999.


"He maintains that the necessary information was in the hands of Phil Goff . . . frankly I don't know who to believe. But he's always delivered the goods as far as I'm concerned."

In the fallout of the 2011 election defeat, Cunliffe, 50, rubbed salt further into the wounds by appearing to criticise Goff. And his position as the most unpopular member of caucus was cemented when he decided to run for leader when Goff stood down.

"I think it is fair to say that before '08 people didn't like him, but after '08 he gave them reasons," one former staffer said this week.

Cunliffe undermined Goff after the 2008 election loss but never challenged him outright. "With hindsight, he did a lot of it by omission rather than commission. He never said, ‘I want your job', it was death by 1000 cuts."

A concerted smear campaign orchestrated by senior MPs Mr Goff, Annette King, Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove - known as the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) faction - ensured that relatively inexperienced Mt Albert MP David Shearer was elevated to the leadership.

Cunliffe's reputation, as untrustworthy and conniving, stuck in the minds of media commentators and the wider public.

Shearer struggled to get to grips with the top job, and within a year murmurs of dissatisfaction began to emerge from the party faithful as the annual conference approached last year.

Reporters looked to Cunliffe: would he challenge? When his proclamations of support for Shearer were judged lukewarm, everyone assumed a coup was in play.

Cunliffe's expressions of wounded innocence only served to grate. Humiliated, and with the taunts of National MPs ringing in his ears, he was condemned to Parliament's back benches.

The ex-staffer has little sympathy. "He is one of the most indirect people, he doesn't really like confrontation. It was always couched in very vague terms which made him seem a bit duplicitous . . ."

However, some friends and supporters argue Cunliffe was set up by the media, and treated unfairly by his colleagues.

Former Labour MP Judith Tizard, an early political mentor, says Cunliffe is "straightforward" and was not organising against Shearer. "People misunderstand David . . . He takes the view that if he gives his word then his word is given. And it would just stun and amaze him if somebody didn't accept his word.

"To my certain knowledge . . . he was completely taken by surprise when David Shearer resigned . . . it's been a real scramble for him to even think about putting a team together for a campaign."

A confidant puts the ostracising of Cunliffe, who graduated in the top 10 per cent of his Harvard class, down to jealousy.

"He has a brain the size of 50 planets, he must be the brightest guy I've ever met . . . there was a degree of the Kiwi knocking machine. It can be quite intimidating for some people to be around that. He never really learned to dumb it down for a New Zealand context."

Tizard agrees envy stemmed from his time as health and communications minister in the fifth Labour government. He made bold calls - unbundling state-owned Telecom's loop monopoly, and sacking the entire Hawke's Bay District Health Board.

"I remember Michael Cullen at one stage saying he thought David was the only intellect in caucus who could be the next minister of finance. And I know that that really irritated a lot of people," she laughs. "There are always a lot of people who think they should be the next prime minister or the next minister of finance, if not both."

The assassination of Cunliffe's personality has been unkind, at times vicious, and often an over-simplified characterisation of who he really is.

Yes, he has an unfortunate habit of coming across as smug, or smarmy, when captured on camera. An infamous video clip shows him addressing an Avondale market crowd in a fake Polynesian accent.

Critics point out he lives in a $2m mansion in one of Auckland's most exclusive streets, while railing against "money trader" Key.

At times he has wrestled with his ego, and seemed slightly obsessed with his public image, although his demotion appears to have taught him to project humility.

Cunliffe displayed a ruthless streak in dumping campaign volunteer Jenny Michie this week, when comments she made about rival Grant Robertson's sexuality threatened to sully his campaign.

One former Beehive staffer said that as a government MP, he also had a habit of "claiming credit for things that came about because of teamwork".

But, Tizard says, he can be "delightfully goofy".

"David is one of those people, what you see is what you get. He doesn't try to placate people, he doesn't pretend to be something he is not . . . there is almost a childlike aspect to him."

The ex-staffer agrees he is no monster. "I don't think he's not a nice guy. It's just that he is a bit fake. It's all learned. Like he's got a book out from the library how to be a good guy. It always comes across as a bit forced."

A lot of the "Mr Nasty" narrative goes back as far as his days with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the confidant argues.

"He did very well very quickly there. And he did come into politics very ambitious, and possibly a little naive as to how that is achieved. The Telecom guys hated him because he had the guts to go in and do the hard stuff, breaking up the monopoly.

"With [people who have] that very high IQ, they sometime lose a little bit of EQ."

However, he has learned lessons from his demotion. "I think that's historical. In the last 12 months he's changed that a bit," the confidant said.

Williams, who came out in support of Cunliffe earlier this week, says he can't fathom the antipathy. "The people up close to him like him . . . He's a normal family man. I have never been exposed to these character shortcomings that I keep hearing about."

Defeated former Australian Labor leader Kevin Rudd was loathed by many members for his repeated undermining of prime minister Julia Gillard. Colleagues described him as "treacherous" and "destructive". The party imploded as Gillard was dumped weeks before an election campaign, and three years of infighting took their toll.

Most agree Cunliffe would face an uphill struggle trying to win the trust and genuine support of many openly hostile MPs. It would be unwise to root out strong performers who are not yet on his side, the ex-adviser cautions. "I don't think he can afford to do utu with anybody. His supporters are hardly the stellar operators.

"I think it will come from the other way: the acknowledgment from the other members of the caucus that they will have to get behind him."

He adds: "The biggest thing that Cunliffe is going to have to get over is asking of certain members of that caucus something that he never gave them. That's a big ask."


❏ Born in Waikato, David Cunliffe's first introduction to the Labour Party was through his father Bill, an Anglican minister.

❏ After studying politics at Otago University, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, serving as a diplomat from 1987 to 1994.

❏ He left New Zealand, with lawyer wife Karen Price, to study business at Harvard, before taking up a job as a consultant with Boston Consulting Group. The couple have two sons.

❏ In 1999 he entered politics, earning selection for Titirangi, which later became New Lynn. During his first term he served as chairman of the commerce select committee and sat on the powerful finance and expenditure committee.

❏ Between 2002 and 2008 he served as communications and information technology minister, associate minister of finance and revenue, and also held the immigration and health portfolios. When Labour was defeated at the 2008 election, Mr Cunliffe was given the shadow finance portfolio. But he lost the trust of his colleagues in the wake of persistent speculation that he would challenge Phil Goff and then David Shearer for the leadership.

❏ After the 2011 election, he was made economic development and associate finance spokesman. But a year later he was demoted, after rumours he was attempting to oust Mr Shearer.

Fairfax Media