Herald on David Cunliffe – the political years

July 12th, 2014 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Claire Trevett writes the second half of the detailed look by the Herald into the Opposition Leader – as they also did in 2008. Her story is focused on Cunliffe’s political years. Some extracts and comments:

Former President Mike Williams first impressions of David Cunliffe were not as favourable. It was at the party’s 1999 campaign launch and Cunliffe turned up with bright red hair – the result of an overzealous hairdresser for a fundraiser whom Cunliffe claims was “a Tory.”

It ensured he got a reputation for self-promotion before he even entered Parliament. The Herald awarded him “best self promoter,” reporting he also handed out copies of the ‘Cunliffe Courier’ – featuring 22 photos of himself – at the campaign launch.

That’s a great idea. Labour’s manifesto should be the same this year.

Cunliffe caught the media’s attention, if not always for the right reasons. He was dubbed the ‘toyboy minister” and “nakedly ambitious.” Observations of his talent were usually followed by a comment about his ambition and ego. He was mocked for describing his own maiden speech as “passionate.” In 2002, his supporters turned up to the Labour Party campaign launch waving placards with his name on them.

Bit of a pattern.

Cunliffe and Tamihere gravitated towards each other, part of a group of junior MPs including Clayton Cosgrove and Damien O’Connor, and dubbed themselves the “Mods” – short for Modernisers. They met in each other’s offices for drinks and discussed policies and the direction Labour might take in the longer term, post-Clark. They decided to recruit others and Tamihere says Cunliffe returned with loyal Clarkists. Whether it was innocent or deliberate, he was seen to have dobbed them in. …

Tamihere says there was no big blow out and they did maintain a professional relationship. Asked about the Mods’ goals now, Tamihere laughs and says “well, you always go down there with those heady ideals.”
“He’s an extraordinarily talented chap but you never get to see the real David. You get to see the David that he thinks you want to see. And that’s his problem.”

This is what is interesting. There is no doubt Cunliffe was on the right of the party, yet now he is trying to position himself to the left of Helen Clark.

After a lengthy review and two year stand-off with Telecom, Cabinet moved to break the company’s near monopoly by forcing it to open its local network to competitors in 2006.

I thought Cunliffe handled the portfolio very well, and he had a good legacy with the operational separation of Telecom. It was long overdue.

Cunliffe had worked with Michael Cullen since he was a junior MP, but Cullen declined to be interviewed for this piece. Cullen publicly backed Grant Robertson in the leadership challenge in 2013 – and quipped at the NZ Post Book Awards at the time he expected next year’s entries to include Cunliffe’s new book “The Dummies Guide to Walking on Water: How I learned from Jesus’ Mistakes.”

Cunliffe made it too clear he wanted Cullen’s job. Funnily enough I think Cunliffe would be an able Finance Minister.

Somewhere along the line Cunliffe earned the nickname ‘Silent ‘T’ – because of the difference inserting a ‘t’ into the relevant part of his surname would make.

That nickname started before Cunliffe was a Minister. No one knows which of hil colleagues first coined the name, but most think it was Clayton Cosgrove.

I can relate a funny story about the nickname. Was once at an MPs house and a reference was made to his nickname of Silent T. Then a nine year old boy piped up and asked why do people call him “David Cunliffety”. We all pissed ourselves laughing as it would not have been appropiate to correct Master Nine’s assumption about where the T was inserted.

Cunliffe also had to deal with the complex, politically sensitive portfolios of immigration and health in his final years as minister. He undertook a major review of immigration settings

He did that very well also. Prior to his law changes, many illegal migrants could game the system for years and years with numerous appeals. Cunliffe introduced a much better and simplified system for dealing with immigration decisions and appeals.

Cunliffe was at the function when Helen Clark ceded defeat and announced she would step down.

Immediately confronted by the media, he said he had no intention of running to be leader.

However, he now reveals that he did subsequently put his name forward at one stage because he was encouraged to do so. He will not say who encouraged him and said he did not push the matter because he acknowledged he did not have the experience in Opposition. “There was, I think, a fairly widely shared view that perhaps later on it might be appropriate for me to have a chance to lead the party.”

Tizard says she spoke to him at the time. “My view was that it was probably too soon, but my comment was ‘if you think you’ve got the numbers, go for it. If not, get the numbers.'”

Interesting that Cunliffe did look at standing, encouraged by Tizard. It was no secret that Clark wanted Cunliffe to become her successor, so he could keep out Goff.

One minister at the time said Clark had proposed Cunliffe as deputy, but Goff made it clear he wanted Annette King.

Never appoint a Deputy who wants to take over from you. David Shearer learn this the hard way.

Cunliffe was the finance spokesman when Goff stepped on the stage in the election campaign at the end of those three years for the Press newspaper’s debate with Key. Goff held until his ground until Key asked where the money to pay for Labour’s spending promises was coming from with the repeated “show me the money” refrain.

Goff foundered, failing to even bring up the capital gains tax revenue which had been released. After the debate, Goff called Parker off the campaign trail to help with the full costings. They were released in full within days, indicating they were at least almost ready.

Why did he not call in the Finance Spokesperson?

Goff says he does not blame Cunliffe for it. “I take responsibility for myself, I don’t blame other people.”

That’s his public stance. His private stance is very different.

Cunliffe’s campaign was an open pitch to the union movement and activist left. He embraced socialism, and followed it up with a brace of promises, many around wage increases and working conditions. One former colleague observed it was a canny move to target the unions. “If you want to be the boss of that mob you have to look at who’s got the organisational muscle 24/7 to organise for you.”

Boss of the mob – how well phrased.

Asked what the biggest mistake of his leadership has been, Cunliffe says it was the use of that trust. 

We should all thank a certain blogger at The Standard for his fine work in setting it up, and never twigging it might be a bad idea.

Cunliffe’s deputy David Parker publicly backed Shearer in 2011, but refused to reveal who he supported in the 2013 run-off. “I felt whoever was leader, there was a need to build bridges. And I thought I was one of the ones who should do that.”

My understanding is Parker voted for Jones, but Cunliffe was his second choice ahead of Robertson.

Cunliffe says he intends to stay on if Labour is in Opposition after the election when he faces a confidence vote. His supporters agree – Tizard points to Helen Clark staying on after losing in 1996. 

This is the real battle ahead.

There’s also an interesting article on Karen Price.

26 Responses to “Herald on David Cunliffe – the political years”

  1. Other_Andy (2,678 comments) says:

    “Claire Trevett writes the second half of the detailed look by the Herald into the Opposition Leader – as they also did in 2008.”

    They had John Key on the front of the newspaper and online every weekend for two months?

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  2. Dave_1924 (928 comments) says:

    I can’t agree re operational Separation of Telecom DPF. Biggest stuff up ever.

    They Government have gone down the de-merger route and physically separated the company in a lines and retail companies from the get go. Operational Separation was a colossal waste of capital and the de-mergered Chorus and Telecom are still dealing with the problems now.

    The Telco market in NZ would be much further advanced in terms of investment in broadband if a physical separation had been forced in the 2006/7

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  3. RF (2,377 comments) says:

    Will the real Cunliffe stand up and identify himself. No one including members of his party has a clue who this Walter Mitty is.

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  4. Southern Raider (2,119 comments) says:

    All the telco policies by Cunliffe then and recent ones under National are aimed at cheaper broadband for consumers which has no economic benefit to NZ. The requirements for NZ businesses are playing second fiddle to populous decision.

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  5. WineOh (1,116 comments) says:

    Good article that pulls no punches but not an unfair assessment of the man.
    It reads almost like an obituary though.

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  6. Jack5 (9,494 comments) says:

    Homer nods!

    DPF what are you saying when you compliment Cunliffe’s unbundling of Telecom’s copper network?

    I thought Cunliffe handled the portfolio very well, and he had a good legacy with the operational separation of Telecom. It was long overdue.

    And in the process Cunliffe confiscated, without any hint of compensation, billions of dollars worth of Telecom shareholder wealth! This was the biggest theft of private property in NZ for decades, and it’s to the lasting shame of the geeks and computer interests (as represented by their industry group, TUANZ) that Cunliffe was cheered for doing this.

    Tens of thousands of NZ mum and dad shareholders were among those robbed by Cunliffe – a Leftist bandit – as Telecom’s share price near-collapsed.

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  7. BeaB (2,529 comments) says:

    The most revealing story was Cunliffe pretending to be a security man and bounding up to Clinton to tell him this was his JFK moment!
    A lifetime of self-aggrandisment, fudging the truth and embarrassing insights into a deeply flawed character.

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  8. Southern Raider (2,119 comments) says:

    I think you can sum up Cunliffes character and lack of touch with general NZers by the following test.

    What do the small number of Labour MPs you would probably have a beer with (Goff, OConnor etc) think of him?

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  9. NeillR (353 comments) says:

    [quote] I can’t agree re operational Separation of Telecom DPF. Biggest stuff up ever.[/quote]

    Agreed. Telecom was already trialling FTTH and FTTN by 2004. They put it on hold, why? Because Labour was threatening unbundling. There was no way Telecom was going to rollout fibre only to see them have to share their capital investment with a bunch of companies who weren’t prepared to ante up.
    Labour’s lack of understanding, and willingness to punish Telecom delayed fibre in NZ by a decade. They are completely useless.

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  10. davidp (3,870 comments) says:

    From the Price article: “He made it up, met Clinton and later told Price he had said “oh, Mr President, this moment is for me what it was for you when you met JFK”.”

    Wikileaks a few days ago told us that Cunliffe was passing political gossip about the National Party to the US Government. Now we find out that he once threw himself at a US President like a teenage groupie trying to get in Justin Beiber’s pants. So… Is the Clinton meeting the moment when Cunliffe decided to start passing NZ secrets to the CIA? Is the US Government one of his secret donors, eager to get a major source in to the Beehive again?

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  11. igm (2,477 comments) says:

    Cunliffe is a bigger weasel at heart than Goff . . . not worth a shit, no guts, no success, and no hope!

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  12. Brett Hudson (4,770 comments) says:

    @Jack5, spot on the mark!

    $3bn wiped off the value of the country’s largest company does not represent good management of a portfolio.

    Cunliffe preaches that people need to invest in productive assets instead of property, yet his true ministerial legacy is the destruction of peoples’ savings in a productive asset.

    And while it is clear that telecommunications needed reform, it is by no means given that the reform had to come at such a cost to Kiwi savers – Cunliffe’s ministerial paper that recommended operational separation noted that physical separation would be far riskier and would have a much greater negative impact. Yet what was the result when this National-led Government mandated that physical separation? The combined value of the two new entities increased by some $180m.

    That puts Cunliffe’s management of the ICT portfolio and Telecom into better context.

    (Incidentally the ‘T’ insertion dates back at least to his time at Otago University – I live with someone who was studying there at the time. Apparently they made a wee modification to the end of his name to go with it.)

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  13. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    “…Cunliffe claims was “a Tory.” ”

    Better to be a Tory than a *commie*.

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  14. Southern Raider (2,119 comments) says:

    Anyone notice his opening remark at the Labour conference last weekdend?

    “Welcome colleagues and comrades”

    Where are we living. 1910’s Bolshevik Russia?

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  15. Ross12 (2,570 comments) says:

    “Funnily enough I think Cunliffe would be an able Finance Minister.”
    Have you got a hang over this morning DPF ? The fact that he hasn’t been able to notice and correct the stuffed up figures in their policy announcements shows even basic arithmetic can be a struggle for him.

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  16. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    “Where are we living. 1910′s Bolshevik Russia?”

    He probably thinks we are.
    It’s just one of his “masks” that he slips on and off.
    There’s the “leader of great socialist party” mask (that’s that one).
    Then there’s the “visiting kindergarten and looking concerned” mask.
    The “visiting construction site and try to look like a bloke” mask. I’m sure there are others too.

    The thing is that Cunliffe is both insecure and arrogant. Those two qualities are at opposite ends of the scale and in Cunners’ struggle to find the midpoint between them he comes across as fake, shallow and insincere.

    He literally has no idea who he is. He has been “acting” for all of his life and knows no other way of existing.

    Real leaders don’t need to act. They see what needs to be done and they get on with it.

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  17. adze (2,133 comments) says:

    It’s interesting that with this reputation for duplicity, and despite six years under John Key, it’s the latter who is characterised as “slippery” and “the smiling assassin” by the left.

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  18. Nostalgia-NZ (6,470 comments) says:

    Claire Trevett did a good job. The article started out fairly unflattering but the ‘core’ events of Cunliffe’s relationship with the unions and his natural home of being more in the middle than to the left gave an explanation about him as having obviously moved through from the ‘wide eyed country boy’ stage – apparently at the feet of Clark to some degree, to battle hardened and smart. To the reverse of all this is the question of will the edges soften in the public mind to the make up of a potential Labour/Greens coalition and will the Nats be able to hold the card of steady as she goes or feel the need to go into ‘promise’ mode and actively court coalition partners. Only one answer there, what the polls say between now and September – in particular the fortunes of the ‘minor’ runners, MP, NZF and IM. The article, and even DPF’s observations of it show that Cunliffe has been a successful administrator with some difficult portfolios and has earned a pass mark – that is probably what most in the middle want to know when considering who they may vote for.

    Looking further afield at JK’s 10 day break to note that Collins appears to have been carefully kept off the roster of spokes people in his absence – an indication that the PM knows just how tight and apparently fickle the mood appears in the electorate. In itself perhaps a recognition that the ‘Liu’ hand was overplayed and the man himself, and such situations, still presents potential problems. Reflecting on that, our politicians now face the ordeal of modern equivalent of being in the stocks – mug shot type photos on Yahoo and elsewhere asking if various Ministers or politicians should resign, something which probably doesn’t add to the Parliamentary ‘tone’ or ‘dignity’ of life for MPs these days.

    Note here that apparently DC has a fairly substantial following on twitter as well as another ‘reprieve’ from any deportation probably for some years into the future. Are we to expect a mustering of some of the potential younger voters that the IP stated as it’s intention. One thing for sure writing him or the IP off hasn’t worked at all to this point.

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  19. FeralScrote (805 comments) says:

    Despite the Heralds best attempts,Cunliffe remains untrustworthy ,unlikeable and unfit to govern.

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  20. Chuck Bird (6,722 comments) says:

    I doubt if they mention Cunliffe caught out assaulting his 2 year old son.

    MP in smack row
    By David Fisher
    5:00 AM Sunday Jul 1, 2007

    A Government minister was last night accused of smacking one of his children at a shopping mall.

    The Family First NZ lobby group, which campaigned against anti-smacking laws, accused cabinet minister David Cunliffe of smacking one of his children at Lynnmall shopping centre in Auckland.

    Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First NZ, said it had been contacted by a reliable informant who had witnessed Cunliffe smacking one of his children.


    I wonder if he will man up and apologize for being a first class hypocrite and being very economical with the truth. This is what happen to ordinary good parents and grandparent who are not cabinet ministers.


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  21. Southern Raider (2,119 comments) says:

    thor42 what about the “I’m a poor excuse for a lady boy males are all evil apologist” mask?

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  22. burt (11,792 comments) says:

    Chuck Bird

    It’s different when Labour do it !

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  23. Huevon (885 comments) says:

    Only in New Zealand would a public figure’s wife be seen wearing a hoodie in a photo in a major newspaper….


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  24. smttc (832 comments) says:

    Make a good finance minister? You f**kin kidding right?

    The man is a born narcissist. You would back a narcissist to do a good job with the finance portfolio?

    Most bizarre thing I have ever read on this blog site.

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  25. igm (2,477 comments) says:

    Why do The Herald continually take up the cudgels on behalf of deadbeat, lying losers? Their obsession with decadent losers, such as Lecher Len and Cunliffe, makes one wonder if they are trying to totally stuff their employer’s product!

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  26. smttc (832 comments) says:


    Just as well she doesn’t aspire to succeed to the role of first lady because she has no prospect of succeeding to it.

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