THE LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION’S OFFICE is located on the top floor of Parliament Buildings. In and around its suite of rooms David Cunliffe’s team of hand-picked personal advisers will be charged with creating and maintaining the most favourable possible perceptions of his leadership.
Like the West Wing of the White House, the Top Floor of Parliament is where the critical scenes of the Labour Opposition’s political drama are played out. Failure at this level cascades down into the offices of Cunliffe’s parliamentary colleagues. Success does the same: energising Labour’s parliamentary team and boosting the morale of the wider party.
Cunliffe has already made his first and most critical appointment. As Chief-of-Staff he has chosen his long-time friend, and one-time colleague at the Ministry of Health, Wendy Brandon. People who have worked with Brandon have been impressed with her formidable legal and interpersonal skills and most “rate her highly”.
There is, however, one crucial gap in Brandon’s impressive CV – a general lack of experience in the cut and thrust of party politics. This latter requires an altogether different skill-set to those required in the world of bureaucratic politics from which Brandon has been plucked. No matter, Cunliffe obviously wanted someone who knows how to get the best out of a relatively small group of talented and strong-willed individuals – and that is what Wendy Brandon does best. That said, she is no Heather Simpson: the Labour Party does not flow through her veins; it is not in her bones.
Is there anyone else in the tight coterie that was Cunliffe’s campaign team who could fill the gap in Brandon’s CV?
One of the leading lights of the Cunliffe leadership campaign was the very bright and capable 30-something, Karl Beckett. He knows quite a lot about leadership transitions, being an early casualty of the transition from Helen Clark to Phil Goff, when he and quite a few of his colleagues in the Opposition Research Unit lost their jobs as the new leader set about remaking the Top Floor in his own image.
(This is par for the political course, by the way. All political organisations operate on the spoils system at their uppermost levels. In spite of the crocodile tears being shed by some right-wing bloggers on behalf of the Shearer-era appointees who are now clearing their desks, no one in the National Party would dream of demanding that an in-coming leader keep all of his or her predecessor’s people on the payroll. These are professional politicos – not cleaners. There’s a difference.)
Beckett has clearly earned Cunliffe’s trust because he is now Brandon’s deputy. Skilled in the dark art of opposition research, he will soon be surveying the Government’s front bench in a most unfriendly fashion.
Cunliffe’s new head of communications is likely to be Neil Jones, currently doing a similar job for the Engineering, Publishing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). Jones has been out of the country for the last few years, working on a contract basis for a number of progressive, campaigning NGOs. Also in his early 30s, he is highly thought of by his peers in the trade unions who describe him variously as “really on to it” and “an impressive guy”.
That Cunliffe is able to head-hunt so successfully from the EPMU makes it very clear that whatever promises that inveterate plotter and schemer, Paul Tollich, may have made to Camp Robertson, the votes of the EPMU are no longer his to dispose of as he pleases. In fact the huge margin of Cunliffe’s victory across the affiliates spells the end of the influence once wielded by the old “union barons” (as Matt McCarten calls them). This was already becoming clear at the 2012 conference, where the rank-and-file members of the affiliates refused to be whipped by their union bosses and delivered the card vote victory that sent the ABC faction spinning out of control.
Matt McCarten, himself, had told TV3’s The Nation that “the people who matter in the Labour Party see Cunliffe as a risk”. But what the people who “mattered” didn’t understand was that they didn’t matter – not any more. Failing to grasp how decisively power had shifted downwards to Labour’s rank-and-file was Camp Robertson’s big mistake.
Someone who knows exactly where the new lines of power are flowing in Labour is Jennie Michie. She is the woman who was required to fall on her sword by Camp Cunliffe to quell the firestorm over Robertson’s sexuality ignited by Dunedin South MP, Clare Curran. Michie’s self-sacrifice was exactly what was required to prevent the final week of the leadership race descending into a shit-throwing contest by the Parliamentary Press Gallery – and Cunliffe knows he owes her.
Besides, he needs someone with Michie’s access to the vast and intricate networks of the Left. Bringing these together and linking them with those whose support will be needed in the months ahead is a vital role and Cunliffe is widely expected to ask Michie to fill it.
Michie’s appointment would also fill the gap referred to earlier. A long-time Labour and unionapparatchik, she has seen the cut and thrust of Labour party politics up close and personal. She knows which bridges will bear the load Cunliffe is planning to carry and exactly who is waiting in the trees above the river with a deer rifle. Every leader needs someone to bluntly tell him when his planned destination is best reached by another road.
Knowledge, they say, is power, so Cunliffe’s likely choice to head up the Opposition’s Research Unit, Alastair Johnston, will also be a pivotal figure on the Top Floor. Johnston is a veteran of the Clark era whose institutional memory, like Michie’s, is much too valuable for Cunliffe to waste.
If this all sounds a bit like the cast list for an Aaron Sorkin teleplay – that’s because it is. The people an opposition leader gathers around him speak eloquently to the rest of us about what sort of prime minister he intends to be. David Cunliffe is a highly intelligent man who clearly does not fear the company of equally intelligent men and women. The appointments he has already announced, and will announce over the next few days and weeks, are not the sort of people you would choose if your only intention was to manage the status quo. On the contrary, they are the sort of appointments you would make if it was your purpose to bring about radical and lasting change.
If an man is to be judged by the company he keeps, then we can look forward to David Cunliffe’s Top Floor being informed, innovative, inclusive and, most importantly, courageous.
It’s about bloody time!