John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Tough-talking 'war footing' Cunliffe clear and concise

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Cunliffe sounds like he means business, says Armstrong. Photo / Paul Taylor
Cunliffe sounds like he means business, says Armstrong. Photo / Paul Taylor

On his first full day as Labour's leader, David Cunliffe was talking tough. Very tough. He announced that Labour was going on a "war footing". He put National on notice that the "easy days" were over. John Key's leadership of the country sucked. Out came that hoary old chestnut that "today is the first day of the election campaign".

Yes, you could be excused for thinking you've heard it all before from new Opposition party leaders. However, there was an edge in Cunliffe's voice that was lacking in those of his predecessors.

Phil Goff always sounded too much the professional politician to appear 100 per cent genuine in his condemnation of National's policies. David Shearer ended up sounding forced when he tried to sound angry. Goff did not know when to stop talking. The more Shearer talked the more he tied himself up in knots.

Cunliffe sounds like he means business. His first press conference as leader did not produce any news or revelations.

He is too busy sorting out Labour's deputy leadership, determining the party's new whips and working on the extremely tricky task of reshuffling the shadow cabinet.

What was noticeable - in marked contrast to Shearer's efforts - was the consummate ease with which Cunliffe dealt with all the questions. These ranged from whether Labour would commit itself to further America's Cup funding by the taxpayer; the state of negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; the age of entitlement to the state pension; the future of the Maori seats in Parliament; and the row over the Commerce Commission ruling on broadband charges.

Cunliffe answered every question in a crisp, straightforward manner. When he did not have a ready answer, he said so. When he did have a point to make it was made quickly, confidently and firmly.

This is a huge asset . The proliferation of minor parties has made it more difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to get extensive media coverage. That should change. Political reporters now know they can rely on Cunliffe for a concise quote or sound-bite laced with a touch of cynicism or vitriol.

A tougher test of Cunliffe's verbal dexterity comes this afternoon when he squares off against the Prime Minister for the first time during question time in Parliament.

His getting the better of Key would be a huge morale boost for Labour and burn off some of the negativity towards Cunliffe within the Labour caucus.

Whether that happens or not, Cunliffe knows it is all very well to go on the offensive. Maintaining that momentum in the many months still to go before the official election campaign gets under way is another and difficult thing to sustain.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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