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The Double Life of David Cunliffe

The Double Life of David Cunliffe

I was standing at an Eden Park urinal before a Rugby World Cup match. Suddenly, the gentleman next to me and I had that uncomfortable realisation we were acquaintances and would need to disrupt the traditional silence of the men’s room.

“Gidday, mate.”

“Gidday.”

“Should be a good game.”

“Definitely.”

“Yep.”

“Oh well, have a good one.”

Walking along the concourse back to my seat, I heard someone running after me. It was the gentleman from the urinal. David Cunliffe.

“Hey, Matthew! Now I can tell the Labour caucus I’ve been pissed all over by Matthew Hooton!”

“Er. Yeah. I suppose you could. Enjoy the game.”

It happened in a public-enough place that I feel entitled to recount it. And that minor interaction reveals, in its own small way, the risks associated with the new Labour leader: he is contrived, self-absorbed, prone to extraordinary exag­geration and just a little bit weird.

Cunliffe was John Key’s preferred candidate for Labour leader. After the New Lynn MP’s bizarre campaign launch, the Prime Minister calculated that, of the three candidates, Cunliffe was most likely to make a colossal stuff-up between now and November 29, 2014, the expected election date. This may be a case of it taking one to know one. Key is also something of a bullshitter, but he tends to indulge in off-the-cuff exaggerations or self-deprecation — it’s part of his standard shtick. Cunliffe prefers deliberate self-aggrandisement.

The Dominion Post revealed his online parliamentary CV was padded with a series of worthy roles of dubious truthfulness. He claimed he had fed the poor and offered budgeting advice at the Auckland and Wellington City Missions, but no one spoken to at those organisations could remember that. He said he was a member of the Waitakere Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society but the society said he was not. When he was questioned on these things, a spokesperson admitted there were “mistakes” and some claims were “a bit old”, and they were taken down.

According to Cunliffe, he grew up in a home where, as an eight-year-old, he encouraged discussion about the politics of suicide. Yet he says he cannot recall ever speaking back then of a desire to become prime minister one day, as family friends say he did. He claims he never wanted the job until recently.

He says he “helped with the formation of Fonterra” when working for the Boston Consulting Group. In fact, it was McKinsey who were the lead consultants, with Boston in a secondary role. In any case, the negotiations that led to the Fonterra proposal took place in secret through 2000 and were announced just before Christmas. Farmers and Parliament voted on the proposition in mid-2001 and the company was formed later that year. Cunliffe had been selected as Labour candidate for Titirangi three years earlier, in 1998, and was elected to Parliament in 1999.

Then there is his peculiar insistence that his family moved to Herne Bay only so his Queen St lawyer wife could breastfeed. They moved there well before they had children. And mothers in the paid workforce living in Titirangi and New Lynn have been known to find ways to breastfeed.

Cunliffe is aware of his foibles. Already, he has significantly upgraded the Labour leader’s office, including bringing in Auckland Council lawyer Wendy Brandon as chief of staff, in order to have tough people around him to tell him to pull his head in. Key’s hope that Cunliffe will implode is probably too optimistic.

Nevertheless, Cunliffe’s dissembling means it is difficult to predict what type of prime minister he will be. Speak to his more rabid supporters and they are absolutely convinced a Cunliffe government would launch a radical crusade against so-called “neoliberalism”, reversing the economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years. They believe this because he has told them so.

But speak to the “rich prick” end of town, as Michael Cullen so famously put it — where Cunliffe lives and is equally comfortable — and they are convinced he would offer a programme only marginally to the left of Key’s. They, too, believe this because he has told them so.

Cunliffe’s record as a perfectly orthodox health minister and communications & IT minister in Helen Clark’s government would suggest the latter is more likely, but his rejoinder is that the Global Financial Crisis showed him the error of New Zealand’s economic policy settings. It is difficult to believe his foreign affairs and consulting background would have left him so lacking in international perspective to believe that.

Cunliffe must surely know that the countries that have come through the GFC the best are New Zealand and others with policy settings similar to ours: an independent monetary policy focused on price stability, well-regulated and profitable banks, relatively low taxes, low debt, radical fiscal disclosure and markets as the primary allocators of resources and setters of prices.

He cannot be ignorant that the US fin-ancial crisis was caused by politicians pushing “affordable housing” policies and fudging the difference between retail and investment banks. Nor can he be unaware that the US crisis was worsened by — and the euro financial crisis caused by — politicians telling voters they can have more generous welfare and other services than they pay for through their taxes.

In terms of his policies as prime minister, Cunliffe would certainly regard rapid transport in Auckland as the sort of system a modern business centre should have, rather than the path to communism some on the centre-right seem to imply. He would seek other legacies and ribbon-cutting opportunities, so expect infrastructure development to be accelerated, at least rhetorically.

There would likely be more of the “hands-on” government that Key and Steven Joyce are already too keen on, à la MediaWorks, SkyCity, The Hobbit and the Bluff smelter subsidy. Even more than now, big business could expect to privatise its profits and socialise its losses.

In contrast, his promises to raise taxes should be taken less seriously. A new top tax rate is only to be expected from a Labour government, but is easily avoided by those for whom it really matters. A capital gains tax that excludes the family home and is payable only on the sale of a rental property wouldn’t affect many people. If anything, the exclusions would help accelerate the house-price inflation that Aucklanders have come to love and depend on.

The likelihood is that the Herne Bay and corporate-box crowd probably have little to worry about in a Cunliffe prime ministership. It’s his New Lynn admirers who risk a big disappointment.

Matthew Hooton worked on the project team that led to the formation of Fonterra from 2000 to 2002, having previously been involved in producer board reform as a press secretary for the National government in the 1990s. He does not recall David Cunliffe’s name being mentioned in either context.

This column first appeared in Metro, October 2013.

Politics