Massey University’s Dr Claire Robinson served with him at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the late 1980s. “He was very open about the fact that he wanted to be prime minister,” she recalls.
“All of us knew that then. In fact I had an email from a former colleague just the other day who recalled he wanted to be prime minister then.”
“I don’t recall that,” Mr Cunliffe says again.
It’s been his stock stance, since asked in 2007 as health minister, if he had ambitious to run the country. “No, it’s a bastard of a job and I have a young family,” he insisted at the time.
To be fair, no one who is not the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader is meant to confirm openly they want to be PM.
“He was a very good student,” Mr Wilson recalls.
“He was a bit of a show-off, if it’s not being too hard. I think some of them were a bit sick of his lack of modesty. But he was accepted well enough . . . I’m sure everybody was sort-of his friend.”
His mother, 89, says he was a “loving boy” but “quite independent”. She says he enjoyed being the centre of attention – even playing Jesus in a school play.
I think he liked the role!
His first experience of inequality – standing behind the counter of his local takeaway – also influenced his political leaning.
“The locals would buy fish and chips and the skiers, driving through from Christchurch and Timaru, would get burgers – more expensive, healthier food. I learned that food was a class issue from the fish and chip shop.
Burgers are healthier?
The job paid for a Honda 185 farm bike, which he rode “very slowly to Dunedin in a really strong north west gale” for his first term at Otago University.
Useless in the icy southern winters, it was later pawned to pay for an engagement ring for girlfriend Karen Price. The couple met in their first year, and were friends at first.
Law faculty dean Professor Mark Henaghan saw the romance blossom in his second-year legal systems tutorial.
“It was nice to see them moving closer to each other and the little glances back and forwards. They were pretty keen on each other right from day one . . . they were the strongest arguers against each other.”
That’s very cute.
AFTER graduating, he was offered jobs with the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry. But he chose diplomacy, after a chat with current Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy secretary Chris Seed.
“We constantly blamed Chris for inflicting David Cunliffe on us,” says Dr Robinson, who sat next to him in the European division.
“He was awful to work with, actually, in those days. He wasn’t interested in being part of a social group. What he was keen on doing was identifying who in the ministry who was going to get him places and he would just schmooze away.”
Cunliffe’s great challenge is his colleagues.
“There are many faces to David Cunliffe and he tries them out to see what works.”
Dr Robinson says his ambition to be prime minister was naked. But she and her colleagues assumed his affinity was to National.
“He was such a conservative person. It was the time of the anti- nuclear legislation and Rainbow Warrior bombing. If you were a Labour person you were hip and cool and David was anything but.
“We thought he was going to join the National Party so were all completely shocked when he turned up in Labour.”
Mind you I understand some in Labour assumed Tim Groser would stand for Labour one day, which is why they were so furious when he stood for National.
His old teacher believes he has it in him to be prime minister.
“He just might, if he can just get himself a bit more popular with his caucus,” Mr Wilson says.
“He’s popular enough with the general public and the media. But the caucus, they are a bit frightened of his ability, I think.
“That’s his major challenge. I don’t think John Key is his major challenge.
“And if he can just get those good ones on his side . . .”
His old teacher is wise.Tags: David Cunliffe