The enigma of Cunliffe

16:00, Mar 07 2014

The great enigma about David Cunliffe has always been how someone so smart managed to make so many enemies among his own colleagues.

He is by many accounts a caring boss and doesn’t take himself so seriously that he can’t laugh at himself.

The schemozzle surrounding the Labour leader in recent days probably helps explain the unease of those among his colleagues who opposed his leadership bid.  Cunliffe’s biggest critics have always complained about a lack of self awareness as his potentially fatal flaw.  

That is what causes him to swing from a caricature of himself as a gun-slinging troubleshooter to working class hero, who forgets along the way that he also lives in one of Auckland’s swankiest suburbs, Herne Bay.

It may also be what lies at the root of his failure to realise the lack of transparency around donations to his leadership campaign and declaration of financial interests was a grenade waiting to go off.

Time for some tough talking that will require Cunliffe to go cap in hand for advice not just from his new chief of staff Matt McCarten, but the more street-wise among his MPs, including Annette King, Shane Jones, David Parker or Grant Robertson.


That tough talking would likely reinforce the message that Cunliffe’s wounds so far are all self-inflicted and that he would be well advised to reflect on the old adage that it’s never the mistake that gets you, it’s the cover up. What  unliffe shouldn’t do is circle the wagons as some of his more one-eyed supporters outside Parliament would have him do by insisting that everything he did was legal and above board and his woes the product of a smear campaign.

The damage inflicted by his latest stumble over trusts is even more egregious because Cunliffe should have had the political nous after 15 years in Parliament to figure that the arrangements in question did not pass the smell test.

Setting up a trust to take anonymous donations to his leadership campaign was clearly wildly contradictory to Labour’s rhetoric over secret trusts when applied to National and John Banks.

The uncomfortable parallels with Banks were apparently spelt out to Cunliffe by some of his MPs.

It was probably not something that occurred to his close friend and lawyer Greg Presland, who was no doubt more concerned with legal boundaries than political ones when he set up the trust on Cunliffe’s behalf.

But it should have occurred to Cunliffe.

Factor in the news that Presland’s fingerprints are on Cunliffe’s other big trust blunder and it’s no surprise that there are rumblings from deep within Labour about its leader’s reliance on him for advice and as a sounding board.

There were similar rumbles among Cunliffe’s colleagues when a bunch of new faces appeared in their corridors after the leadership changed hands. That was hardly surprising given that Cunliffe won the contest with less than whole-hearted support from all his colleagues.

But he won’t win in 2014 unless he can heal his splintered caucus fast. That will involve both sides putting aside any distrust.

Presland is Cunliffe's former electorate chairman, who also appears to be his lawyer, and is  widely believed to be a prolific blogger writing under the pseudonym Micky Savage on the Left-wing Standard website which led the charge for a change in the Labour leadership. The day after the Labour leadership was announced Micky Savage was blogging advice which Mr Cunliffe happened to follow on how to take on John Key on his first day in the House.

It was also Presland who advised Cunliffe as his lawyer that he didn’t need to declare an investment trust on the MPs’ register of pecuniary interests, though Cunliffe later did so after advice from the registrar that ‘‘when in doubt, declare it’’.

What’s baffling is why Cunliffe thought he needed legal advice at all on which of his assets and financial interests should be declared.  The starting point for any politician would surely be disclose everything, hide nothing.

But Cunliffe was not the only politician suffering from a lapse of judgement.

Justice Minister Judith Collins failed the smell test when she dropped in at the Chinese company where her husband is a director and had her visit used to endorse its products on their website.

It’s difficult to join the dots on a last-minute social call which might result in a government minister smacking her lips after skulling a glass of milk and praising it so effusively management decided it was worth taking her comments down.

It is more usual for a business call to involve a glass of bubbly or canapes being passed around.

The Cabinet manual, meanwhile, clearly states that no minister should endorse, in any media, any product or service.

Key’s attempt to reconcile that with Cabinet office advice that Collins did not breach the manual was to offer up a lame suggestion that any minister could be caught out by, say, expressing a preference for a brand of toilet paper.

His suggestion that the Cabinet office gave the issue extensive consideration suggests there were enough question marks to merit that level of inquiry.

Certainly Key’s backing of Collins was carefully framed around his advice from that office.

But Key’s refusal to release that advice proves no politician is immune from forgetting the golden rule that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Fairfax Media