Saturday, December 28, 2013

O'Sullivan on Cunliffe

Fran O'Sullivan delves into the character of Labour leader David Cunliffe in her final Herald column of the year this morning. Under the headline Big problem for both Cunliffes she opines:

Labour's David Cunliffe faces a conundrum - how to convince New Zealand voters it's time to break away from the "old economic orthodoxies" when the data shows the country is poised for a relative boom?
It is an oddly disjunctive period for Cunliffe.
He is probably the most complex person to head a main New Zealand political party in many years. His is a singular character. He is a loner. Watch him at a political gathering and he can switch almost in an instant, from lapping up being the centre of attention to becoming a watchful and skilful observer of the political game.
Cunliffe perplexes many political commentators. He is not the sort of political leader to easily cosy-up over a beer as John Key did when he was courting then television political editors Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner as he positioned himself to dislodge Helen Clark as Prime Minister.
If anything the same television players appeared much more in sync this year with Cunliffe's competitors for the top Labour job, particularly Shane Jones who was televised enjoying a barbecue with Espiner during the leadership primary.
Cunliffe also uses an essential duality - which has been accurately pin-pointed as "talking out of both sides of his mouth" - to try to assuage middle-class and politically adept New Zealanders that he doesn't really mean all the tosh he threw as bait to Labour's bedrock base to garner voting support during his leadership campaign.
What fascinates and frustrates is that it is difficult to work out which side of Cunliffe's mouth will triumph if he ends up this time next year as Prime Minister.
Will it be the crusading politician who wants to bring down bloated plutocrats, raise the underclass up and cut the ground out from under particular corporates through legislative intervention?
Or will it be the more considered politician - an experienced former cabinet minister who is prepared to take advice and feedback from affected players instead of ramming decisions down their throats with a damn the consequences mentality?

David Cunliffe has already created a rod for his own back. When he addressed the CTU early in his tenure with promises of riches for the masses, then told the waiting media pack (but not the assembled CTU delegates) that his promises were tempered by economic realities, he set himself up badly. Asking "Would the real David Cunliffe please stand up?" is now a legitimate rebuttal to any promises he makes.

Fran O'Sullivan then looks at some of the interventionist policies that Cunliffe is proposing:

Around the traps he has also been talking to select audiences about cutting Kiwibank loose to enter the business banking market. This would mean recapitalising Kiwibank so it has a larger balance sheet to write off business loans.
This might seem absurd given the dominance of Australian-owned trading banks. But Cunliffe says smaller New Zealand businesses suffer from market failure because the Australian banks are risk-averse and usually demand small business owners guarantee their loans with hard assets.
His plans to move the state further into the banking market is not the end of this interventionist scenario. Labour is also wedded to intervening in the electricity market to bring power prices down and plans to start KiwiAssure to give greater insurance cover for lower premiums.
The problem is that when Cunliffe began to road-test Labour's developing policies a couple of months back he was riding high. Then he was signalling that it was time to make a strong shift towards putting the state into a "partnership" role in particular markets.
The "old orthodoxies" had run their course. It was time to throw out policies that had enjoyed bipartisan support, such as leaving the Reserve Bank free to run monetary policy with a sole focus on keeping inflation within a narrow band, and support for free-trade deals including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But at year's end, Labour under its new leadership is no further ahead in the political polls than it was at the start of the year.
The pendulum has swung back again towards National, with the optimism indexes showing much of the country in good heart and the Government poised to post a return to Budget surplus next year.

The economic recovery (and no-one can seriously question now that a significant economic recovery is underway) is bad news for Labour. There are already hints that the Labour Party has conceded the economy as an election issue, and will fight the 2014 General Election on issues such as poverty (whatever you define poverty to be) and the living wage.

Ms O'Sullivan closes with a hint that David Cunliffe has a big job ahead of him:


The problem facing Cunliffe is how he can convince enough voters the country is on the wrong track given the resurgence in economic growth. This growth will continue into next year as a result of a range of factors including Auckland's housing boom, big demand for dairy exports, the Christchurch post-earthquake rebuild, immigration and the favourable terms of trade.
Overcoming this is no easy feat for any politician even one as experienced and competent as Labour's leader.
There is room for much more contestability in politics. But John Key also has the power of incumbency. It is Key who can set the election date, bring in the royal circus and delight New Zealanders with the presence of Prince George and his parents, post a Budget surplus, crank up the Canterbury rebuild and much more.
Against this, Cunliffe has sharpness of wit and a cutting focus. He will need all of it.

There is no doubt that David Cunliffe will be a more formidable opponent to John Key than David Shearer would have been. But as recently as the Herald DigiPoll at the start of this week, David Cunliffe's popular support was pretty much the same as David Shearer's was when he fell on his sword; in the mid-teens.

David Cunliffe will have to clearly articulate Labour's vision in order to turn that around; a difficult enough job, without taking into account that two thirds of Labour's caucus did not vote for him. As we noted above, his propensity for delivering different messages to different audiences has created a rod for his back, and his future utterances will undergo much scrutiny.

It's almost election year, and a most interesting contest awaits.

3 comments:

Angry Tory said...

It's almost election year, and a most interesting contest awaits.

Not really. The polls have been clear over the last year that a solid majority exists for a National-Conservative government, and that National will be by far the largest party. Ironically the only reason it's not 100% certain (more like 90%) is that Key didn't take the Green's & Labour's advice and drop the MMP threshold to 4%.

The most important fact that must be repeated to the MSM as loudly and frequently as possible in 2014 is that a government not lead by the largest party in parliament will be illegitimate.

The only path Cunliffe has to power is to form a Labour/Green government relying on the support of Maori-electorate MPs - but against the clear results from the general electorates who will vote National/Conservative, with National as by far the largest party.

If Cunliffe does that, he will precipitate an acute constitutional crisis, if not civil strife. Mainstream Kiwis are fed up and will not tolerate a hard left government they didn't actually vote for!

A government after the next election that is not lead by national will be illegitimate.

Kent Brockman said...

You betcha!

Anonymous said...

Civil strife, yeah right. Not in sleey NZ where the populace is so cinditioned and soft.

As for the housing boom, Key just made it harder for first home buyers to get ahead. I bet not many of the locked out wanne be home owners (after all, the Kiwi dream), will be voting National.

The rich getting richer, the struggling dumped upon again.

Dave