Fran O'Sullivan: Labour leader dances off the back foot

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Labour Leader David Cunliffe speaks at the TVNZ leader's debate. Photo / Getty Images
Labour Leader David Cunliffe speaks at the TVNZ leader's debate. Photo / Getty Images

David Cunliffe finally injected himself into the election race this week with a confident - if not triumphal - performance in the first television leaders' debate.

For long-time Cunliffe watchers this was hardly a surprise.

He has always excelled as a debater and did not (for once) overlay his performance with that occasional smirking hint of moral superiority which can make the bile rise.

That he managed to win the debate - despite Labour having been comprehensively knocked in two political polls in a row - was a triumph of discipline and will.

A lesser politician would have found it very difficult indeed to come off the back foot under the full glare of the cameras against New Zealand's most popular Prime Minister.

What was a surprise - and again shouldn't have been - was the lack-lustre performance of John Key.

Key has been knocked by the Dirty Politics revelations.

As with the Tea Pot tapes affair, which knocked him off his stride at the 2011 election, he has again allowed himself to be played. This time by author Nicky Hager who used stolen emails to write a book which he clearly intended (through saving the hacked material for the campaign season) to knock National off its electoral perch.

Hager did not give Key - or Justice Minister Judith Collins - the opportunity to respond to his allegations before publication.

The upshot is that as with the 2011 election incident, Key backed himself into a corner - again a victim of his own blind fury. Back then he saw the tape incident as evidence of some sort of News of the World plot to catch him out by making indiscreet comments in his private tete a tete with Act candidate John Banks.

Key hasn't made the mistake this time round by calling in the police (it was blogger Cameron Slater who was hacked or bugged - not him).

But going into rote mode and repetitively attacking Hager as a "left wing conspiracist" was not what the public want to hear.

Many would have been incensed at Hager's strategy to make himself a player in yet another New Zealand election. But just as many would be disquietened by the dirty tricks campaign that has been run from the Beehive.

Key's response should have been to cauterise the gaping wound by standing Collins down. He didn't. As a result he has had to spend too much of the campaign defending her when there is really no reasonable defence to some of her more crass and calculating actions.

Having to bat away endless questions on the material contained in the hacked emails has taken its toll on Key.

When the Prime Minister returned from his Hawaiian pre-election holiday he was refreshed.

After the past two weeks he looks tired. He appeared pallid under the glare of the television studio lights this week.

Crucially, the Prime Minister was lacklustre to the point where a great number of watchers will be wondering if his heart is still in the job.

He could still pull out the figures and facts to back his concrete assertions when it came to policy differences - he does have the benefit of incumbency after all.

But while Key talked about New Zealand being on the cusp of an exciting future, he did not paint just what that picture entails. What he gave was a status quo performance.

This suggests his political advisers have told him not to rock the boat. To keep his performance smooth and on message as a contrast to the patchier and less disciplined players among his opponents. If that is the case his advisers have got it wrong.

Key needs to show he has the passion and drive to lead New Zealand for a third term in office. A period where leaders often come unstuck through hubris.

Cunliffe has to demonstrate comprehensively that Labour is the party of ideas. That he is thirsting to lead New Zealand. He has finally got some oxygen into his campaign.

The picture he has to paint is one of New Zealand stuck on a sandbar.

Cunliffe has to show he is not afraid to rock the boat and do something new.

He needs to persuade enough New Zealanders that the status quo is not enough.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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