Election year starts with a hard slog ahead

20:35, Jan 06 2014
David Cunliffe
LABOUR LEADER: David Cunliffe

David Cunliffe came back from the dead to lead the Labour Party. The disgraced former frontbencher won the leadership and took his party to new heights in the polls.

But three months on, the bounce has ended. A Roy Morgan poll on December 11 showed Labour back down to 30.5 per cent. After Cunliffe won the leadership in September Labour went as high as 38 per cent.

So it is back to the hard slog of opposition for Cunliffe.

The new Labour leader has also made a few gaffes since his triumph. He called Justice Minister Judith Collins a "trout", and drew accusations of sexism.

He broke the electoral law by tweeting "Vote for Labour candidate Poto Williams" on the day of the Christchurch East by- election. He received an official warning for that, and by way of penance said he would donate $1000 to Christchurch's Stepping Stone Foundation, which provides counselling to quake-affected children.

"I have taken the warning on board and will not repeat the error," he said about his mistake.


Some found it hard to credit that such a seasoned politician did not know his tweet would break the law.

But the critics have always claimed that Cunliffe, though clever and capable, is also erratic.

On the other hand, he is an arresting speaker who has waded happily into many areas of policy. In this he is the opposite of predecessor David Shearer, a tongue-tied man who never claimed to be a policy wonk.

Cunliffe took a strong line over New Zealanders' rights in Australia, where Prime Minister John Key has preferred a softly- softly approach.

Cunliffe used his first international speech as leader to call for "equal treatment and the same respect" for Kiwi expats in Australia as Aussies receive in New Zealand.

"Australian nationals who come to live in New Zealand can eventually become full participants in New Zealand life but many New Zealand nationals in Australia cannot become fully fledged Australians," he said in a speech in Sydney in November.

There was a widespread misconception that Kiwi migrants to Australia had limited skills and were more likely to be jobless, but the reality was very different, he said. Cunliffe also promised that a Labour-led government would pay the full $3.4 million court-ordered compensation to the Pike River mine families.

It had a moral obligation to pay the compensation because the Department of Labour was held jointly responsible for the tragedy, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in 2010.

"It is shameful that neither the Crown, nor Crown entities ACC and NZ Super Fund, have upheld their moral obligation to contribute," he said. "The financial wellbeing of the Pike River families is uppermost in our minds. Paying the court-ordered compensation is the decent and right thing to do."

He branded the Government's SkyCity pokies deal "a shabby, shonky, stinking deal" that would benefit "the big end of town . . . wide boys in their alligator shoes".

The new leader received the enthusiastic backing of the unions and the wider party for his candidacy - but he remains unpopular in his caucus.

Left-wing observers such as Chris Trotter say his caucus enemies are a serious threat to Labour's future. The old guard want to defend Labour's neo- liberal past, he says, whereas Cunliffe has pledged to change it.

Asked whether he would raise taxes on the rich, Cunliffe replied: "You bet."

He has also stuck by his pledge to bring in a capital gains tax on residences other than the family home.

Some have taunted him for not rejuvenating the party, unlike National.

Long-serving Labour MP Trevor Mallard has said he will not retire at the election in 2014, and says he wants to be Speaker under a Labour-led government.

Cunliffe, however, has made no promises and says he has not yet had a conversation with MPs about their retirement.

Rejuvenating the lineup will be among his main tasks during the political recess over the summer - the traditional time for party plotting and planning.

Cunliffe will want to start the 2014 election year with a strong showing, especially now the lift he gave the party has subsided.