Cunliffe falters at 'show me the money'

David Cunliffe apparently spent his summer studying the likes of the British Labour party’s Ed Miliband  and New York mayor Bill de Blasio.

That provides a clue as to where Labour is drawing many of its arguments on inequality.

But Cunliffe should also have spent some time watching old recordings from the campaign trail in 2011 when John Key floored Phil Goff with the line ‘‘show me the money’’.

Ironically, Goff’s people blamed his finance spokesman, Cunliffe, for going awol in the final weeks of the campaign and leaving him vulnerable to questions about Labour’s campaign costings.

That was mostly bunkum from a team that needed a handy villain on which to deflect some of the blame for Goff’s humiliating 21 per cent election night performance.

But it was a lesson in the old adage that the devil is always in the detail.

This week Cunliffe had his own ‘‘show me the money’’ moment. 

Labour’s $500 million dollar "Best Start" package should have put National on the spot over its own support for new parents.

But what unfolded instead was a shambles over which parents would qualify for the $60 a week baby bonus. That succeeded only in giving National a platform from which to erode confidence both in the package and Labour’s fiscal credibility.

It is tempting to think the policy fell victim to Labour’s desire to dress it up as something other than its 2011 campaign promise to extend the $60-a-week in work tax credit to beneficiaries.

That policy was hugely popular within Labour’s activist base but deeply unpopular among the so-called ‘‘battlers’’ Labour spent most of its 2011 campaign talking about.

Broadening that policy by extending it to households earning up to $150,000 a year makes it more politically palatable among the middle-income nesters. But by years two and three of the baby bonus, the rules around eligibility are squarely pitched at beneficiary households. 

The extension to paid parental leave helps sweeten that pill among working couples. But Cunliffe’s omission of the fact they would not also receive the baby bonus for the first six months while they were receiving paid parental leave was a mistake.

In Key’s words, it looked tricky.

Labour may be suffering from the lack of a Heather Simpson-like details nut to run a blow torch over policy before it is released.

Simpson, Helen Clark’s chief of staff,  was famously on top of everything, which earned her the name H2.

Cunliffe’s chief of staff would normally fill that role but she has apparently been on leave. 

Architect of the policy was Labour’s welfare spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern, but she was not on hand later in the week when Cunliffe fumbled again over detail of the policy.

Finance spokesman David Parker has been strangely absent from the debate, meanwhile. 

Looking back at the days of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, it is hard not to imagine the former finance minister stepping in to monster his opponents on the fiscal detail when necessary.

Those are issues which may be thrashed out when Labour meets for a two-day caucus next week.

Labour’s front bench will be demanding a post mortem on what went wrong. 

Cunliffe may have put the cart before the horse in announcing a big ticket package before opening the books on Labour’s alternative budget.

In an election which will hinge on economic credibility, Labour has not yet  found a way to neutralise National’s narrative that it is the more prudent fiscal  manager.

But he chose the right issue on which to try to force National on to the back foot in an election year. With Labour’s bill extending paid parental leave just around the corner, National has been desperately seeking a way to back-pedal away from its threat last year to use its financial veto to stop the bill progressing.

Arguments about unaffordability are getting harder to fly – especially when the  Government has been quick to pull out the cheque book to the tune of $30 million and $125m  respectively for corporate giant Rio Tinto and movie maker James Cameron.

Coincidentally, that’s not much less than it would cost to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks.

There was probably some quiet gnashing of the teeth on the ninth floor when Cunliffe pipped them at the post with his plan for new parents.

National was clearly working on its own plan not only to extend paid parental leave by a few more weeks but also widen the eligibility.

Mr Key’s out-of-the-blue musings on changing the New Zealand flag suggest that even if National was enjoying Mr Cunliffe’s discomfort, it was still keen to change the subject.

Fairfax Media