Long path from Point to politics

17:00, Sep 13 2013
David Cunliffe
A WAY WITH WORDS: David Cunliffe, right, showcased a talent for public speaking at an early age, helping his high school win the national debating title in 1979. Pictured here with teammates Sarah Feasey, left, and Helen Steven.

Pleasant Point is modestly-well known for a few things: big, fluffy Denheath custard squares, fertile pastures, and a busy taxidermist sought after by local hunters.

The small South Canterbury service town, nestled alongside the Opihi River, is also where the man who might yet be the next Labour Party leader went to high school.

David Cunliffe arrived in "Point" in 1974, aged 10, and left with a bent nose, a national debating cup, a collection of hobbies, and a burgeoning interest in politics. The nose was the result of a high school rugby incident where, as a teenage lock, the Labour leader hopeful copped an elbow to the face.

David Cunliffe
OUTDOORSMEN: Bill, David and Stephen Cunliffe, from left, enjoy a hunting trip back in their Pleasant Point days.

The house surgeon at Timaru Hospital reassured him: "You broke your nose but let's face it, you were never Robert Redford in the first place."

Cunliffe roamed the space between the Opihi River stopbanks with a fishing rod, occasionally landing salmon and trout.

He worked at a piggery for $1 an hour, and at the local fish and chip shop. Retired teacher Ian Simmonds, from Cunliffe's Pleasant Point High School days, remembers "a bright kid" who got on well with people.


"He was an outstanding student. Occasionally he got stick because he worked hard.

"He was also the vicar's son, which didn't help."

The late Bill Cunliffe, a bespectacled Labourite, was the Anglican minister at St Alban's Church from 1974 to 1980, and the chairman of the Pleasant Point branch of the Labour Party.

Cunliffe says "simple hobbies" - tramping, fishing and gardening - probably all came from his time at Point, as did his interest in politics.

"I picked up [Dad's] values in the pulpit, and I picked up his passion for the Labour Party selling chook raffles at the pub."

Simmonds was the head of the English department at Pleasant Point High School from 1978 to 1995.

He says the school did extremely well with its students, until Trevor Mallard's "hatchet job" in 2004. He blames the closure of the school on Labour's former minister of education.

The "heart" went out of the place after that, says 83-year-old Pleasant Point resident Judy Turnbull, who was Cunliffe's fourth form art teacher.

"I can't remember him having any artistic talent but he always did what he was instructed to do.

"He wasn't stuffy and he certainly wasn't arrogant."

Turnbull is a long-term Labour supporter who worked with Cunliffe's father at the Point branch of the Labour Party for eight years. She says she would back Cunliffe as the party's leader.

"And there are quite a few people in this small community who will.

"He's prime minister material and John Key has got to go."

Debating, says Cunliffe, was a great love at high school and it is also how he first put Point on the map. A high school team made up of Cunliffe and two fifth formers - Helen Steven and Sarah Feasey - took out the national inter-school Jaycee Cup for debating in 1979.

Their debating coach, Wendy Hurst, 59, says they had time to kill in Wellington on their way to one of the final rounds of the competition in Masterton.

Steven and Feasey were keen to go shopping in the capital but Cunliffe wanted to go to Parliament. So did Hurst. They headed to the public gallery where then minister of health Frank Gill was casually reading a newspaper during debate.

"David was livid. He said: That's who is running our country? He was quite upset.

"He was interested in the country's affairs."

Hurst, an educator at the South Canterbury Museum in Timaru, says Cunliffe popped in to see her last July. She commiserated with him about ending up on the back bench.

"A lot of people say he's a bit arrogant and possibly doesn't suffer fools but he said: Actually, it [the back bench] has been good for me. I think he appreciates others a lot more."

The Wilsons are family friends of the Cunliffes, and Bernie Wilson, 75, taught David in forms one and two. His daughter was in Cunliffe's class.

"There has been something in the water in Pleasant Point for some time, because a lot of our kids have done really, really well," Wilson says.

The National Party supporter says he would back Cunliffe as the leader of the opposition but he still wants Key to remain in the hot seat.

His wife, Gwenyth Wilson, 74, remembers a teenage Cunliffe sitting on a step outside her Pleasant Point home, looking up at her, and saying: Mrs Wilson, I'm going to be the prime minister of New Zealand one day.

"And I said: 'You go for it, Dave'. 

"Modesty wasn't ever his second name."

Fairfax Media