Hail To The Chief! Reviewing David Cunliffe’s First Moves.

David Cunliffe and his supporters at his Labour leadership campaign launch, August 26, 2013. Image Greg Presland.

IT IS DISCONCERTING. Both the victory itself, and the failure of his foes to fully comprehend what’s been won – and lost. David Cunliffe’s campaign was as near to faultless as the fog of politics permits. And now, with victory secured, we are witnessing the scope of his forethought and planning.

The necessary blood-letting  has been both measured and minimal.

Chris Hipkins could not (and did not) expect to hold his Chief Whip’s position. His vicious public attack upon Cunliffe’s character in the days following the 2012 annual conference was beyond anything Labour Party veterans could recall. Not even in the very depths of the internal conflicts over Rogernomics had a party whip resorted to language so venomous and so unrestrained.

Never has the old political saying about treating people decently on the way up, because you never know whose help you’re going to need on the way down, been more convincingly confirmed. If he manages to retain a significant portfolio it will speak much more of Cunliffe’s personal magnanimity than Hipkins’ political worth.

Darien Fenton, perhaps scenting a shift in the prevailing wind, attempted to convince the party of her neutrality in the leadership election contest. Those engaged in the contest were not deceived. Behind the scenes, Fenton was a tireless worker in Robertson’s cause. The Leader of the Labour Party needs Whips he can trust. A Junior Whip who proclaims her neutrality while simultaneously working her heart out for one of the combatants can expect scant consideration if her candidate falls in the fight.

Grant Robertson’s fate raises a number of interesting questions. Cunliffe gave him the option of marching his followers in good order into the victor’s camp and sealing the effective merger of the Cunliffe and Robertson factions with his unanimous reappointment to the Deputy Leader’s position. Why didn’t he do this?

One explanation may simply be that he could not give the order to march with any confidence that it would be obeyed. Anyone whose read the thousand words conveyed in that single picture of Jacinda Ardern and Phil Twyford, taken just moments after Cunliffe’s victory on the first ballot was announced, will understand the depth of Team Robertson’s despair. People so obviously stricken by the defeat of their candidate should probably be given some time and space for the wounds to heal.

BULSsrUCQAEu--nBut not that much time, and not too much space. Because the blunt fact of the matter is they should not have been so stricken. Professional politicians should have a good feel for who is going to win any sort of election race – especially if it’s taking place within their own party! Yet, a good number of Team Robertson remained convinced their man was going to come through for them – right up until the moment he didn’t.

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A large part of that confidence was based on what they still believed was the dominant role of the Labour Caucus. Heedless of the obvious enthusiasm for Cunliffe among the party rank-and-file (and that term now embraces the rank-and-file of Labour’s trade union affiliates) Team Robertson obviously believed that the 2011 option of over-riding the will of the party and installing Caucus’s choice remained viable. In other words, they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Well, they had better start learning – and quickly. Ever since they entered Parliament in 2008, Robertson, Ardern, Hipkins and the Dunedin South MP, Clare Curran, have been held up as Labour’s great red (ish) hopes. They were, after all, Queen Helen’s hand-picked courtiers: the best and the brightest.

On the crucial issues of leadership and repositioning the party for victory, however, they have all been found wanting. The best and the brightest, Labour’s great red hopes, should have had enough understanding of the rank-and-file’s aspirations to grasp that: 1) they were determined to steer the party to the Left; and 2) they were not about to put up with another 15 years of top-down decision-making – no matter how adroitly imposed.

That they failed to appreciate the membership’s aspirations was never more clearly manifest than during the 2012 annual conference. That was where they were observed collectively reprimanding delegates for voting the “wrong” way on the party’s new rules. It wasn’t the sort of behaviour ordinary Labour Party members expected from “the brightest”, and certainly not from “the best”, of their parliamentary representatives.

The verdict is now in on those who would chastise their party for voting the wrong way. Team Robertson must come to terms with the fact that their bottoms only get to rest upon all that green leather upholstery courtesy of the New Zealand Labour Party. If they truly believe they can enter the precincts of Parliament without its sanction and support – then let them try.

Which brings us to that lean old spider, currently sitting very still amidst the ruins of its web: Trevor Mallard. With a superbly calculated en passant move, Cunliffe solved the Robertson problem by appointing him Shadow Leader of the House – bringing low as he did so the man who, more than any other, has organised and directed the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) campaign to keep the Member for New Lynn out of the leader’s chair.

If he is wise, Mallard will treat this demotion as the equivalent of the bottle of whiskey and loaded pistol which the disgraced army officer supposedly found waiting for him in the regimental library. He has sat too long in the seat of Hutt South for any good he has been doing lately. He should depart; and let his party have done with him.

In the name of God, Trevor – go!

David Parker must be watching this process of elimination with a large helping of grim satisfaction. It was, after all, Robertson and his team who’d ended up being caught in the Old Spider’s web back in December 2011. Convinced that Parker could not win the leadership, Robertson abandoned his erstwhile running-mate and, in return for the No. 2 position, transferred his faction’s votes to the ABC’s David Shearer.

Parker is now eating a big slice of cold vengeance-pie. Not only has Cunliffe retained his services as Labour’s finance spokesman, but he has also given him his former running-mate’s old job.

It is shrewd work on Cunliffe’s part. Parker is both trusted and respected by business leaders. It will be much harder to dismiss Labour’s economic policies as the roaring of what the Prime Minister calls the Labour-Green “Devil Beast” when they are delivered in the reasonable (some would say “pointy-headed”!) tones of David #3.

But what about the Member for Dunedin South? Close observers of the leadership contest may be wondering what Cunliffe has in store for Clare Curran. The answer would appear to be – nothing at all. What Ms Curran has coming to her will be decided by the good Labour Party members of Dunedin South. Evidence is mounting that Clare’s departure from her electorate may be accomplished by means of the same sword that secured her arrival.

In that part of the world it is considered wise to execute an ill-disciplined MP from time to time – pour encourager les autres.

But, if the choice of Ms Curran staying or going as Dunedin South’s MP belongs to her electorate, the choice of the new Labour leader’s Chief-of-Staff belonged to David Cunliffe alone. His appointment of Wendy Brandon says much about the sort of office the Leader of the Opposition intends to run. And most of what he is saying is that the parliamentary Labour Party is about to get very, very serious.

Brandon is a legal high-flyer and a tested manager of powerful and extremely competent individuals. Her appointment is, therefore, about the most generous compliment Cunliffe could have paid to his caucus colleagues. His assumption is clearly that his parliamentary colleagues not only want power, but also that they possess the wherewithal to both win it and wield it.

Brandon comes from the Senior Executive Team of the Auckland City Council – so her acceptance of the offer to be Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff almost certainly entails a significant drop in salary. She has taken the job not because she needs the money, but because it offers her the best chance of doing some genuine good in the world. Those who know her (as Cunliffe and his lawyer wife, Karen Price, have done for many years) all attest to her heart being safely located on the left, and her head being more than equal to the task of taking down the Right.

Cunliffe’s choice of a high-powered lady lawyer sends a signal not only to his caucus colleagues and the Labour Party, but also to the entire country, that his will be a highly professional and relentlessly efficient Opposition machine.

Both the Government, the business community and the civil service should, therefore, be advised that in David Cunliffe the Labour Party has chosen a man who understands what needs to be done to secure a just and equitable future for all New Zealanders; and that in David Parker and Wendy Brandon he has chosen allies with both the legal knowledge and the political smarts to ensure that nothing and no one prevents him from doing it.






  1. Most positive article I’ve seen from Trotter in a LONG time. I’m blown away. Who are you and what have you done with Chris Trotter? 😉

  2. After all this good news, I am starting to get worried.

    I have observed every Question Time and debate in Parliament as much as was shown on TV this week. I am happy with David Cunliffe having immediately lifted the quality standard of Question Time. I also enjoyed his first speech as leader in the debate yesterday.

    Nevertheless, I am NOT a friend of the mainstream media at all, but I am witnessing some very dissatisfied faces in caucus. I fear that some things have not been handled that well. Maybe it is beyond of David Cunliffe’s control, but I see a very unhappy David Shearer, a dubiously looking Grant Robertson, a worried and easily irritated Clayton Cosgrove, a flippant, tense and insecure Jacinda Ardern, a somewhat insecure Annette King, a boisterous (beyond reason and belief) Shane Jones, a good performing David Parker (yet too meek to be Deputy), and a fair few others speaking body language that tells me, not all is good and clean in Labour’s caucus.

    I will await the reshuffle of the front bench and shadow cabinet, on which David Cunliffe is working hard. I hope he makes good and wise decisions. I am not sure whether Robertson refused to stand for Deputy, or whether his hands were tied, but him not being in that role is leaving some uncertainties.

    Right after the leadership change all looked good and well, but I thing the next week will tell us more, about what the real situation in caucus is. It should have been a signal sent and received by caucus, re what the party members and affiliates expect. I fear the message has not sunk in with some.

    As for David Cunliffe, some of what I hear is promising, but some other bits are missing and not coming forth, or are also worrying.

    In any case, a Cunliffe leadership offers fresh air, and a hope for better change, but it will need to prove itself, especially to people at the very bottom of society, and I hear too damned little re what will be done to get them back on board, and respected for the challenges they face.

    Time will tell, I suppose. I do not fully share the enthusiasm anymore, I must admit, reality is setting in, and I will watch every detail of what will evolve. Trouble is, caucus as a whole holds a lot of clout, more than the party may wish to share with, as for their orientation and interests.

    There is still potential for much division and damage, apart of the worries I personally have about some Labour policies not defined much as yet.

  3. All makes perfect sense Chris except for the comments on Hipkins. Yes he made a poor judgement call regarding the conference, but there is something very ironic about you calling someone else on levels of vitriol! I hope Mr Cunliffe can see past Chris Hipkins recent gaffes as he did have MsParata squirming several times in Parliament. Perhaps it could be seen as loyalty to Shearer and a dislike for the constant squabbling. He certainly isnt the only one who was feeling that even if he was contributing. Many people were stirring publically and it seemed stupid to give opponents so much fuel to discredit Labour. Keep them guessing is much more fun and effective too. The squabbling didn’t help to get Cunliffe elected and the resulting reputation for disunity is still a major challenge. Keeping Hipkins on seems like a pragmatic and generous gesture to counter talk of vengeance and bickering by msm. After all Labours choices are a bit limited numbers wise. He is a talented education spokesman. Let him keep his job and he will soon shift camps. He seems a verY bright young man who comes across well on the box. He just needs to direct his passion towards ousting the govt. Good to see Mr Cunliffes first week going so well. It is an unfamiliar feeling …. Hope. A really impressive choice of Chief Of Staff too. Well done all round.

    • I’d agree with you, Jean. I hope David keeps Chris on as the education spokesperson, as he really has done a good job of it. Going by what David said about basing his cabinet on merits rather than alliances, I think he will decide to keep him (possibly with a lower list ranking though). Because there isn’t anyone else in Labour who I believe would do a better job in the education portfolio.

      Going with that, I do think he should keep Annette King as the Health spokesperson, as she has done a pretty good job in it too.

  4. Well said, but will he change his spots if or when he becomes PM? Something so many of our politicians do and which undermines the public trust in governance..

  5. Cunliffe made a good showing on Maori Television’s ‘Native Affairs’ programme this week. He was given the opportunity to make a statement and he did it in the Maori style, beginning with a tribute to leaders who had passed on, in this case Parekura Horomia. References to matters of concern to Maori were well expressed and properly pronounced.

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