Pundits on Cunliffe

Fran O’Sullivan writes:

must be kicking himself he didn’t just fund his own way into the party’s top job.

The Cunliffe household – lawyer Karen Price and Opposition leader David – would pull in a combined income of at least $500,000 a year. Writing a campaign cheque for $20,000 to cover last year’s leadership campaign would not have stretched the family’s finances one iota.

Instead he had his campaign manager rattle the tin for him resulting in about $20,000 of anonymous donations being laundered through a secret trust.

$20,000 is a decent amount of cash, but affordable. The median household income is $70,000 so it is the equivalent of $3,000 for a median household.

Cunliffe has been battling the stench of hypocrisy since the use of a secret campaign trust to launder leadership campaign donations from five donors was disclosed.

It’s not surprising that wealthy businessmen such as Tony Gibbs and Selwyn Pellett tossed some of their chump change into Cunliffe’s leadership campaign trust.

He’s a known quantity. He’s personable. Many business people like him even if some are deeply wary about just what changes will occur under a Labour-led government because Cunliffe sometimes says one thing in public and something very different to them in private.

This is the interesting thing. The donations were from wealthy businessmen, not from unions, social justice campaigners and the like.

The episode underlines Cunliffe’s essential political duality. He relies on secret donations from wealthy supporters to fund a campaign which positions himself as a man of the people. 

Tracy Watkins goes down this path also:

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.

David is smart, and for my 2c I’ve always found him likeable. He performed well as a Minister in the previous Government, and I could never work out why so many of his colleagues were so anti him. I think Watkins is right when she says it is the lack of self awareness.

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. 

This is so true, time and time again.

What  Cunliffe 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.

Which he is now doing. He’s now blaming it all on the National Party. It’s a dumb strategy as these issues were all pursued by the media on their own initiative and calling it a National Party smear insults the media involved as it implies they are too stupid and lazy to dig these stories up on their own initiative.

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.

It’s not as if Presland is just a lawyer though. He is an elected local government official, long time party activist and prominent blogger.

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.

That is a very good starting point. It is not as if you have to disclose the value of the investments. It’s just the name.

Mike Hosking weighs in:

As we end the week he now has himself a major credibility problem. Go back two weeks and they had themselves a poll that showed they had trouble. National had 51, Labour stalled on 30, and ever since then Cunliffe hasn’t done a thing to change that. In fact it will be interesting to see the next series of polls because it’s possible he’s done a bit to make it worse.

The best case scenario is that all this stuff is what they call beltway stuff – stuff that fascinates the Press Gallery but no one else. Worst case scenario is that a growing number of people are seriously questioning whether he’s up to it.

This could not have played better for the Government. They wanted to label Cunliffe and they came up with ‘tricky’. Its short, it’s sharp, it’s effective. They came up with tricky after the baby bonus, which not only gave money to people who didn’t need money but actually didn’t give money to as many as they said it would. This was Cunliffe’s first major blow.

The problem is he’s compounded it with mistake after mistake, followed by back down after back down. The problem with the problem is once it starts, in the game of politics it’s hard to break. A reputation  is formed and it follows you wherever you go. You become a target.

Hosking is right that once a brand is set, it is hard to break. I’m surprised Labour didn’t have a strategy to pro-actively set their own brand for Cunliffe for the first four to six months before he was elected. Six major speeches to define him – each with new ideas, and clear policy positioning.

Toby Manhire also writes:

No one could reasonably begrudge David Shearer about now were he to lean back on his chaise lounge, log on to his New York bank account and let out a sigh of relief. A text message might arrive on his phone, from Phil Goff, saying something like, “Show me the money!” The series of mishaps that have befallen their successor as Labour leader, David Cunliffe, the very man whose supporters made their own tenures difficult, bears out Helen Clark’s observation that Leader of the Opposition is “the hardest job in politics”. In the past fortnight, however, the unmistakable impression is that it is Cunliffe who is making it hard.

It is a tough job, but as Manhire says there has been a series of blunders (I’m up to 10 this year already) that are totally self-inflicted. To be fair to Cunliffe, the fault is not his alone. There is meant to be a team behind the leader.

Part of the strength of Project Tricky is that it prods ceaselessly at a nerve within the Labour caucus itself. The persistent whispered complaint from Cunliffe’s colleagues is that they still don’t really know who he is. Is he for real, is he authentic? It’s not an easy one to square and, paradoxically, the strident speeches of recent months have only added to that puzzlement. He has, at least, demonstrated a humility some of his colleagues claim not to have seen previously, in admitting errors and lapses of judgment in the past fortnight. It’s just that there have been rather too many admissions, too many lapses.

The best way to win the backing of colleagues, of course, is straightforward. Comradely affection will climb in direct proportion to poll numbers. 

Heh, this is true.

Perhaps the most telling slip by Cunliffe in recent weeks came in an interview last week in which he said that the Government was clearly going to change – “it’s either going to change this time or next time”. Gulp. He’s scrambled since to emphasise that Labour is full-throttle for 2014 victory, but it nonetheless feeds a creeping sense that a number of people within his caucus have in large part given up, deliberately or not, on a Labour-led government in 2014.

That was a significant statement.

The political Grim Reaper has been stalking the blue halls of the Beehive, with 14 National MPs having left or signalled already that they will not seek re-election. Labour, by contrast, has had only one MP, Ross Robertson, announce retirement, leaving them facing a crisis of “bed blocking” – a term that was borrowed from hospital wards to describe the geriatric UK Conservative MPs who refused to budge during their long Opposition stint last decade.

Somehow, Cunliffe’s team needs to persuade the dead wood of the Labour benches that their day is done, that they should embrace the many joys of retirement For The Sake Of The Party. And with a general election looking increasingly likely to take place in September, they haven’t got long to do it.

You look at the new talent coming through in National such as Shane Reti, and contrast it to the hold ons in Labour from the 1990s and even 1980s.

Finally John Armstrong gives some sage advice: The summary is

  • Rebuild Cunliffe’s image as a credible and competent leader – and quickly
  • Give Cunliffe the ammunition to make voters sit up and take notice of him
  • Talk the economy up – not down
  • Start talking solutions – not problems
  • Up the work rate
  • Send out a search party to find David Parker
  • Leave the personal attacks on John Key for someone else

Or maybe for the last one, don’t do them at all.

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