Is Cunliffe NZ’s Kevin Rudd?

Andrea Vance looks at David Cunliffe and whether or not he is our own version of Kevin Rudd.

It was the defining moment of the 2011 election campaign. Under the blinding heat of stage lights, the then Labour leader Phil Goff faltered as Prime Minister John Key goaded: “Show me the money.”

Key had identified a $14 billion hole in the Opposition’s bold plans to introduce a capital gains tax and make KiwiSaver compulsory, all while rebalancing the economy.

Floundering, Goff could only promise his finance spokesman would explain the costings at a later date. The leaders’ debate was lost to Key, and Labour’s campaign never really recovered from the impression they were pushing expensive, uncosted policies.

The party went on to suffer its worst defeat in decades. And in the minds of some MPs, one man was at least partly to blame: the numbers man, and former Cabinet minister, David Cunliffe.

The New Lynn MP claimed to be ill, at home that November night. But conspiracy theories mounted: some were convinced the ambitious Cunliffe had deliberately left his boss hanging. 

That moment is here:

In the fallout of the 2011 election defeat, Cunliffe, 50, rubbed salt further into the wounds by appearing to criticise Goff. And his position as the most unpopular member of caucus was cemented when he decided to run for leader when Goff stood down.

“I think it is fair to say that before ’08 people didn’t like him, but after ’08 he gave them reasons,” one former staffer said this week.

Cunliffe undermined Goff after the 2008 election loss but never challenged him outright. “With hindsight, he did a lot of it by omission rather than commission. He never said, ‘I want your job’, it was death by 1000 cuts.”

He wasn’t the only one and nor will he be the last running destabilisation campaigns. If Cunliffe wins he will have to contend with Grant Robertson white anting him except this time Grant won’t have Cunliffe to lay the blame on.

A concerted smear campaign orchestrated by senior MPs Mr Goff, Annette King, Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove – known as the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) faction – ensured that relatively inexperienced Mt Albert MP David Shearer was elevated to the leadership.

Cunliffe’s reputation, as untrustworthy and conniving, stuck in the minds of media commentators and the wider public.

Shearer struggled to get to grips with the top job, and within a year murmurs of dissatisfaction began to emerge from the party faithful as the annual conference approached last year.

Reporters looked to Cunliffe: would he challenge? When his proclamations of support for Shearer were judged lukewarm, everyone assumed a coup was in play.

They should have been looking at Robertson. I understand that one of the reasons why Fran Mold didn’t re-up even though she has been offered a job is because she has found out that Robertson was behind much of the stabbing of Shearer.

Former Labour MP Judith Tizard, an early political mentor, says Cunliffe is “straightforward” and was not organising against Shearer. “People misunderstand David . . . He takes the view that if he gives his word then his word is given. And it would just stun and amaze him if somebody didn’t accept his word.

“To my certain knowledge . . . he was completely taken by surprise when David Shearer resigned . . . it’s been a real scramble for him to even think about putting a team together for a campaign.”

Here was me thinking this was a serious article, and then Vance mentioned Judy T. Credibility shot right there.

A confidant puts the ostracising of Cunliffe, who graduated in the top 10 per cent of his Harvard class, down to jealousy.

“He has a brain the size of 50 planets, he must be the brightest guy I’ve ever met . . . there was a degree of the Kiwi knocking machine. It can be quite intimidating for some people to be around that. He never really learned to dumb it down for a New Zealand context.”

And an ego the size of a galaxy.

The assassination of Cunliffe’s personality has been unkind, at times vicious, and often an over-simplified characterisation of who he really is.

Yes, he has an unfortunate habit of coming across as smug, or smarmy, when captured on camera. An infamous video clip shows him addressing an Avondale market crowd in a fake Polynesian accent.

This video, than any other gives you an insight into the faux sincerity of David Cunliffe. He is a political charlatan and will find out when leader that his habit of saying different things to different audiences will hang him.

The ex-staffer agrees he is no monster. “I don’t think he’s not a nice guy. It’s just that he is a bit fake. It’s all learned. Like he’s got a book out from the library how to be a good guy. It always comes across as a bit forced.”

A lot of the “Mr Nasty” narrative goes back as far as his days with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the confidant argues.

“He did very well very quickly there. And he did come into politics very ambitious, and possibly a little naive as to how that is achieved. The Telecom guys hated him because he had the guts to go in and do the hard stuff, breaking up the monopoly.

“With [people who have] that very high IQ, they sometime lose a little bit of EQ.”

I think he is a flake, a narcissist and displays all the characteristics of a sociopath…The tells are in his videos and speeches. It is fascinating to watch when you know what to look for.

I am going to enjoy him being leader for as long as he is leader.

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