Declaring for Camp Cunliffe: here’s why


The Americans distinguish between disjunctive presidents and reconstructive presidents. Disjunctive presidents manage the political, social and economic regimes they inherit. Reconstructive presidents remake the regimes they inherit. FDR was a reconstructive president. Reagan was too. Clinton was a disjunctive president and Obama is (arguably) one too.

In New Zealand, reconstructive prime ministers are said to lead “big change” governments. The first and fourth Labour governments were big change governments. The fifth Labour government was a disjunctive government.

David Cunliffe could be a reconstructive prime minister and lead a big change government.

Gordon Campbell explains:

Telecom… wielded its power without compunction for at least 15 years, ever since Richard Prebble turned a state monopoly over to the tender mercies of Telecom’s new owners for peanuts, and without putting any safeguards for consumers (or for business) in place. It was a situation that couldn’t last. The Lange government had created a monster, and National’s Maurice Williamson sat by idly watching this out of control corporate beast pile up the profits at everyone else’s expense, for the entire 1990s… [Telecom] was finally outfoxed by David Cunliffe and his Boy Scout wiles.

Cunliffe demonstrated a level of interventionism (and political skill) that was in short supply in the disjunctive Clark government. There wasn’t an aversion to taking tough decisions. In 2008, as the then Minister of Health, Cunliffe dismissed the Hawkes Bay DHB over political, financial and conflict of interest troubles. I’m not convinced Grant Robertson is or wants to be a similarly reformist:

Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson has moved to try and reassure financial markets that its sudden lurch to favour central planning in the electricity industry is one-off.

Robertson says: “Labour makes no apology for stepping in to fix problems in the electricity sector. But this is not a signal that Labour is going to intervene elsewhere in the economy.”

DPF helpfully (and rightly) divides ministers into leaders, administrators and bumblers. Leaders impose their policy priorities, administrators manage the existing consensus and bumblers bumble. I’ve no doubt Robertson could lead a new consensus, but he seems to fit within Clark’s culture of incrementalism rather than, say, the first Labour government’s reformism.

Cunliffe doesn’t (I think). In a  positioning speech in 2012, Cunliffe attacked the neoliberal consensus and expressed his belief in the need for change. In 2012 he told Guyon Espiner:

[Cunliffe believes] The left will no longer play second fiddle to the right as it has these past three decades. “The left of politics had to really adapt. You got Clinton’s Democrats. You got Blair’s Third Way, which to some extent had to accommodate and triangulate on triumphal markets and the Washington Consensus, and then the great crash of ’08-’09 happened and I reckon – we reckon – that that changes things again,” he says. “That gives not only the necessity but the freedom for us to ask big questions about do those policy settings, pre-crash, fit our people well for the future? And the answer in many cases is no.”

This afternoon Cunliffe also announced he would change New Zealand’s tax settings. The Labour Party must decide between what sort of party it wants to be. An extension of the fifth Labour government- and that’s what I think Robertson represents – or rejection of the fourth Labour government – that’s what I think Cunliffe represents. Disjunctivism (Robertson) or reformism (Cunliffe). I’m picking reform.

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Post-script: I could be wildly wrong about this. Cunliffe might tack well to the centre and abandon any notion of reform if he secures the leadership. Robertson – who I think is more than capable to lead a successful government (but my second choice) – might actually be the reform candidate. Though I see no evidence for that belief. Also, I’ll discuss Shane Jones’ candidacy at Maui Street over the next few days.


  1. Agreed. It was a shock to a lot of people to hear Grant Robertson wimp out to the 1% in the financial sector, after the huge public approval response Labour received following the announcement of its electricity reforms. At last we were seeing the rebirth of the real Labour Party, many thought, only to have the wind whipped out of our sails by his toadying retraction. Although Grant has done some good work in making the Nats accountable, because of this backdown I would not trust him to turn sufficiently away from the old Rogernomics belief systems which continue to plague the Party, despite proving disastrous for both the economy and the population.

  2. It’s pretty obvious to everyone who is not a member of the Labour Party that Cunliffe should be the new leader of the Labour Party. Now everyone just has to sit around painfully waiting to see if the right decision is made. It could be a tortuous month for those who don’t like the present government, a bit like New Zealand playing France in the last Rugby World Cup final.

  3. Erm. Cunliffe didn’t announce he’d change tax settings in any novel way. He just confirmed he supported a CGT, and very carefully avoided any answering any question about income tax.

    • When asked whether he’d raise taxes Cunliffe replied with “you bet”. That’s a firm commitment. Coupled with his advocacy for a CGT (he drove Labour to adopt the policy for the 2011 election campaign) then I think it’s fair to say he will change the tax settings.

      • But when asked how, he mentioned the CGT — which is a tax on the rich, let’s be clear — and didn’t mention any other taxes. I’m sure Cunliffe would implement a CGT, just like Robertson would.

        He very carefully avoided committing to raising income tax, or, in fact, any tax but the CGT, which is existing policy. I don’t think Cunliffe committed to raising any other tax.

        • It’s not a “tax on the rich.” It’s a proposal to close the loophole which allows unproductive investments to make large tax free gains, as they (in the housing market case) drive housing prices to levels that prevent regular kiwis from getting a foothold into the market. “Tax on the rich” is just dog-whistle politics, a glib soundbite that tries to divert from the real argument by appealing to emotion, much like the “fart tax” moniker.

  4. If Cunliffe sets out to change stuff as PM, being a Labour Minister or even backbencher is going to require some work. For those who have warmed their seats under a “steady as she goes, don’t rock the boat” approach, this will be uncomfortable. No wonder the machine men hate him. I expect them to do everything in their power to destroy his candidacy. I fervently hope it won’t be enough.

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