Profile: Labour MP David Cunliffe

by Guyon Espiner / 25 August, 2013
In this 2012 profile, David Cunliffe insisted his failed tilt at the Labour leadership freed him to concentrate on making a difference.
NZ Listener, 3 Nov 2012; v.236 #3782:p.30-33

MP David Cunliffe
photo David White

David Cunliffe presents Labour with an impenetrable conundrum, a political puzzle, an insoluble riddle. His eloquence, ambition and intelligence mark him out as a potential leader, but his undisguised belief that he possesses those qualities in abundance also makes him unbearable to many of his party colleagues. Cunliffe knows he is loathed by a good chunk of Labour’s caucus and acknowledges he struggles to contain his ego. He also knows that because his ambition and skill are obvious to others, he must be disciplined about how he portrays himself. He won’t be photographed lying on the grass for this story (fearing it could lead to a “snake in the grass” headline) or initially on the sand (lest he be referred to as “all washed up”). He also sees risks with the interview location. He agrees to meet in a cafe on Ponsonby Rd but then changes his mind. Auckland’s trendy, inner-city suburb might make him look out of touch to ordinary folk.

The irony, of course, is that he lives in Herne Bay, an even swankier suburb on target to become the first area in New Zealand where house prices average $2 million. This is hardly a secret, yet he chooses to meet in his West Auckland electorate of New Lynn. New Lynn is very different to Herne Bay. It has a large Chinese population, but generally not the sort who buy flash cars and equally flash houses. Known briefly as Titirangi, the electorate includes pockets of wealth and encompasses the rising suburb of Blockhouse Bay, but is mostly solid working-class. Cunliffe has held the seat since 1999.

The tables in the cafe courtyard where we meet are mostly empty, as you’d expect before noon on a Thursday. But Cunliffe has left nothing to chance. There is a blue sticky note on the table at the back: “Cunliffe. Two people. 11am.” He sets his cellphone to make his own recording of the conversation and we’re away. There’s no doubt Cunliffe has a firm grip on the finance portfolio. The trouble is, it’s not his portfolio. It belongs to David Parker. No matter. Cunliffe’s opinions on the economy are still worth hearing. Prod him with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) prediction that New Zealand’s economy will grow at a relatively healthy 3.1% next year and he trumps it with a negative NZIER quarterly survey. The latest buzz-phrase peppers his conversation as he talks about the prospect of the United States facing a “fiscal cliff”.

As for Australia, he dismantles a favourable comparison with its growth prospects using a line that could have come straight from the Economist magazine. “Where that is headed is the perceived shift from hard economies to soft economies as China rebalances from infrastructure-led growth to consumer-led growth and the hope is that there will be a spin-off for us,” he says. (Translation: our dairy might do better than their mining.) “The question for New Zealanders, I think, is: does that translate to good jobs and money in their pockets or are we going to get more trickle-down where it never trickles?” He’s chuffed at his nifty little summation. There’s more. If you want the historical perspective on economics – or even if you don’t – he has it down pat. The Great Depression, the Keynesian stimulus, the post-war era, the oil shocks of the 1970s, Milton Friedman and inflation targeting, the economic liberalisation of the 1980s and the ultra-free markets of the 1990s.

Cunliffe believes a new epoch is now upon us and that 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.”

That means altering the Reserve Bank Act to rein in a currency the IMF says is 15% overvalued and that the Bank for International Settlements ranks as the 10th most-traded. It may even mean imposing a financial transaction tax to ward off currency speculators. He worries this is a “pointy-headed” discussion and pulls it back to the political. “We are doing this because we want New Zealanders to thrive. We want Kiwi businesses to thrive, and we understand people are doing it tough.” He sprinkles the Struggle St sayings among the theory and statistics – constantly repeating that “people are doing it tough” – in the hope it will give him street cred. It doesn’t, of course, but he has a habit of trying hard enough to convince himself at least. If you doubt that, go to YouTube and watch his Avondale Market 2011 election campaign speech, where he adopts a faux Polynesian accent as he pleads with his audience not to be fooled by the dastardly shyster John Key, who will hurt the innocents and their families.

As the clock clicks closer to midday we acknowledge the elephant sitting at our table. The elephant’s name is David Shearer. Is the electorate looking at Shearer as an alternative Prime Minister? “Ah, I think you would have to ask the electorate,” Cunliffe says. “I think that David has got his heart in the right place, he is working really hard and that he has the ability to do that.” Whether he makes it to Prime Minister depends on the electorate, he says. “He’s my leader and I am always loyal to my leader.”

Cunliffe says last year’s leadership contest taught him a lot. “Losing a race you really care about because you believe you can make a difference – that was hard,” he says. “On the other hand that was last year and this is this year and I am really committed to doing what I can do for the country and for our team. And it has helped me in a way, because it has got me on the other side of any fear of losing. Been there, done that.” He says that frees him to concentrate on what he cares about. “I am really clear that I am not here for me. It’s not about me.” Cunliffe accepts he has struggled with that concept in the past. “I have had to learn a few lessons. One of those lessons is making sure I am clear in my head that it is not about me – and I really mean that. That’s an ongoing challenge, but it is really important to get the perspective right.”

MP David Cunliffe on TV3's The Nation
on TV3's The Nation TV show, photo Doug Sherring

There can’t be many politicians who would admit it is a challenge to keep their ego in check. But ego is not the reason he offers for not being chosen as leader. He wonders whether his colleagues didn’t pick him because they feared the degree of change it would bring. “Sometimes maybe I lead with my chin. Maybe that is part of the problem. I call a spade a spade a bit and I think, for certain people, maybe they thought, because of that, the kind of leadership I would offer might be a more thorough-going process of change than they would be comfortable with.” Cunliffe does not deny colleagues have conducted a whispering campaign against him in the media – as blogged about by TV3 political editor Duncan Garner – but says his opponents learnt as much from that as he did. “There is no patience for those who might carry out personal vendettas at the expense of the party.”

Cunliffe’s backstory does not need to be teased out of him. It is well practised and well polished. He was born in Te Aroha, the son of an Anglican minister and a nurse. They moved to Te Kuiti when he was four. He went to Pukenui Primary School “where I was one of not many white faces”. Dad moved to a parish in Pleasant Point, near Timaru, where Cunliffe went to high school. “I really appreciated the education I got there and I am very passionate that every kid gets a good state education and that has to be a priority for us.” He’s equally on-message when discussing his socio-economic status: “I was like a lot of kids from what you might call a lower middle-class upbringing who worked hard at school and were fortunate that that created opportunities. I have always been grateful for a good state school system to deliver that, and I want every kid to have that chance.”

He enjoys telling his personal story and tells it like he’s a character in a movie. Maybe the hero. “I went down on my Honda 185 motorbike through a blustery nor’wester to Dunedin where I became a scarfie and really enjoyed it.” He met his wife, Karen, at university. They’ve been married for 30 years and have two children. He has a fine education, including an International Baccalaureate from UWC Atlantic College (an international college in the UK), a BA (with first-class honours) from Otago, a Diploma of Social Science (Distinction) in economics from Massey and a Master in Public Administration from Harvard, where he was also a Fulbright Scholar and a Kennedy Memorial Fellow. After university, he had four government departments offering him work. The Treasury was paying the most but he didn’t feel comfortable with its perceived right-wing ideology. Instead he worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat in Wellington, Canberra, the South Pacific and Washington. He then joined the Boston Consulting Group until he became an MP.

MP Daivd Cunliffe
photo David White

He didn’t come into Parliament to muck around. He chaired the commerce select committee in his first term, was Minister of Immigration and of Communications and IT in his second term, and Health Minister in his third. He is probably best remembered for his game of political chess with Telecom, and dropping the bombshell of local loop unbundling on the former state-owned monopoly. He says his values have remained constant throughout his career. “I think I am sincere,” he says. “I am in politics now for the same reasons that I got into it, in that I am a believer in certain ideals and values and I am prepared to work bloody hard and put my family on the line to try to advance those values, and they are about fairness, about equity, about opportunity and it’s good old Kiwi stuff, you know?”

He’s downed a long black after an initial flat white and now he’s racing. “It’s Jack is as good as his or her neighbour,” he says, getting the gender politics right but confusing his masters and neighbours. “It’s about everyone having a fair shake of the sav,” he exclaims, getting his sticks, savs, sucks and shakes mixed up. He tries to wind it back to his actual area of responsibility, the economic development portfolio. “If the economic engine is strong and we see it holistically with good social policy and a sustainability lens and we care for our environment and pass that on, then we can hope for a better next generation than today and we can be a proud young country with a unique fusion of cultures and a strong constitutional base and go forward.”

The interviewer’s voice recorder faithfully takes in his words and alongside it Cunliffe’s cellphone also does its job, lest he be misquoted or misconstrued. But one suspects it’s not the media he should be worried about. If his colleagues think he is promoting himself as the next leader, they may never elevate him no matter how exceptional his mind.
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