Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Cunliffe has a few things to learn

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Mark MItchell
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Mark MItchell

Labour leader David Cunliffe has joined the elite group to earn a PhD for proving the thesis that what is right in law is often wrong in politics.

Given the numbers who had trod his path before, it is surprising he needed it. Cunliffe appeared to have skipped the first paper in the PhD, on the question of: "What would I be saying if my opponent did this?"

If it was political folly for a Labour MP to set up a secret trust in the first place, it is equal folly to start off by trying to defend it and take three days to realise that he could not get away with it. That should have been obvious from day one.

On Sunday, he tried to brush questions from the Herald off as irrelevant because it was "historical" and, even if he had used a trust, "there's nothing illegal about trusts". The next day, after confirming the trust existed, he said they were "common practice" in politics, apparently oblivious that Labour changed the law in 2007 to prevent their use in elections.

On Tuesday, he buckled and revealed the names of three donors who had agreed to be named. A further two would not be named, and their donations will be returned to them. He said it was a lapse in judgment but done with the noble aims of respecting the donors' wishes for secrecy and keeping Cunliffe at arm's length from it all. Cunliffe claimed the latter aim was achieved - he had not known the identity of the donors. He also admitted at least one of them had approached him directly to offer a donation, but claimed he had referred that person on to the trustee, Greg Presland, so had not known for certain whether the donation ended up being made.

By this stage a neon sign with "John Banks" should have flared in his head. If Cunliffe's 2013 donations were "historical", what were Banks' 2010 donations? And Banks, too, had argued his donation from Kim Dotcom was technically anonymous because his campaign manager had dealt with it after he was offered it, so he had not known for certain if it was made.

Cunliffe also argued the donations were not as important as in an election campaign, because the amounts were smaller. Actually, they were not. On average, each of the five donors gave $3560 - well over the $1500 limit at which election candidates have to disclose donations.

Cunliffe will still benefit from the existence of the trust. He still does not have to list the donations in his return to the Register of Pecuniary Interests. He need only declare the trust. If not for the trust, he would also have to disclose the two donations for which the donors were not willing to be publicly named. The rules for the register specify that even if a gift or donation is subsequently returned or passed to another person, an MP must list it.

The question also arises as to how Cunliffe declared the donations to the Labour Party. Labour and Mr Cunliffe have both refused to say whether he declared the donations to the party individually, or as a lump sum from the trust. Presumably it was the latter, given Cunliffe has claimed not to know who the donors were. If so, it might not strictly be against the Labour Party's own rules but it certainly isn't in the spirit of them.

Cunliffe is now talking about changing the rules to make the situation clearer. If any rules are to be changed, it should be those of the leadership contest, not the Register of Pecuniary Interests. Labour may be selecting its own leader, but it is also selecting the person who could be Prime Minister. No MP who is effectively auditioning to be Prime Minister should be exempt from disclosing donations simply because it is an "internal process". If anything, it is a greater reason for disclosure. Nobody would accept it if the Prime Minister took donations on the sly as part of some "internal process".

Cunliffe's predecessors in the role, Phil Goff and David Shearer, must be taking some satisfaction from this. Throughout all their own mishaps, Cunliffe and his supporters would have thought he would shine in the same situations. Once in the role, the reality hits. Cunliffe started with trust issues. His first job should have been to convince voters he was not Iago and dispel the perception that he had white-anted his predecessors. Instead, his four most noteworthy actions since that day have only served to reinforce it.

There were the grand promises to the trade unions before he pegged them back immediately after, his baby bonus speech in which he conveniently didn't mention the fact it would not apply to those on paid parental leave. There was his attack on John Key as a wealthy Parnellian overlord, wallowing in his wealth like Scrooge McDuck, despite his own more than comfortable situation. Now there is the secret trust.

Cunliffe can take some solace in the fact that different people are prompted to vote for very different reasons. If evidence was needed of that, it came in the form of Janice, a caller to Sean Plunket's show on RadioLive yesterday. She didn't care a whit about the trust or policies. She voted for faces. She said she liked the faces of John Key and David Shearer. She also quite liked Shane Jones' face, although she had reservations about his moles. Janice declared she would not vote for Labour this year because of Cunliffe's face. His face was apparently "crumpled".

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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