Claire Trevett 's Opinion

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

Claire Trevett: Oh David - it's come down to a question of trust

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Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / One News
Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / One News

It was a valiant effort by Labour leader David Cunliffe's deputy David Parker. As a clearly shaken Cunliffe battled off questions about a letter he wrote on behalf of businessman Donghua Liu in 2003, Parker piped up: "even Inland Revenue doesn't keep records for 11 years".

Unfortunately for Cunliffe while Inland Revenue may not keep records for 11 years the Immigration Department certainly does.

So Mr Cunliffe found himself in the position of having to play the "I forgot" defence over that 2003 letter the Herald obtained under the Official Information Act after unequivocally denying he had advocated for Liu in any way only the day before.

Donghua Liu is rapidly starting to rival Kim Dotcom in the wrecking ball stakes, so many heads are in danger from his dealings with politicians.

Cunliffe's argument that he was simply checking on progress for a constituent rather than advocating for him will ring some bells.

That was the same thing National's Maurice Williamson said about his phone call to police on Liu's behalf over allegations against Liu for domestic assault.

Williamson claimed even the police records showed he had not sought to pressure the police but simply queried on progress and that was part of the ordinary work of an MP. He fell on his sword because he accepted there was a perception he had tried to influence the outcome.

Cunliffe was merciless. In Parliament just a month ago he used Liu to accuse National of "cronyism" toward wealthy foreign donors. He took particular exception to Williamson's reported comment to police to "ensure we are on solid ground as Mr Liu is investing a lot of money in New Zealand".

Mr Cunliffe listed Williamson's links to Liu, adding "how close is that to foreign money?"

"Since when in this great country of ours has the amount of money in the someone's bank account been able to determine their treatment under the law?"

How embarrassing now to discover that in his own letter to Immigration asking about progress on Liu's residency bid as an investment migrant, Cunliffe had also referred at length to investment Liu planned for New Zealand and exports to China.

Cunliffe claimed he was not actually advocating for Liu, simply checking on progress as any decent MP might. Yet his letter does contain a strong hint he was pushing for Liu to be able to jump the queue in the long line of applicants the Immigration Department were handling.

It was undoubtedly a lapse in memory rather than a lie. Only a fool would have lied, as Cunliffe himself pointed out. The trouble with that is that Cunliffe and Labour have also been unforgiving about Prime Minister John Key's memory blanks from the Springbok tour to the GCSB. Labour has argued that forgetfulness was no defence at all. In one short brain fade of his own, Cunliffe had rendered useless a large section of the weapons in Labour's armoury. If any evidence now emerges that Key did in fact know of Dotcom prior to the date he claimed, it will be that much harder to make it a killer blow.

The letter was written a month before Cunliffe became a minister. He may have been distracted by other events -- it coincided with stories that he had quit the committee considering the Corngate Inquiry because of a conflict of interest with his wife's role as lawyer for a seed supplier involved in a GM scare.

The letter itself and Cunliffe's brain fade may not be resignation material on their own. But it adds yet another layer to the problem that has afflicted Cunliffe since even before he became leader: the question of trust. There was already an element of distrust due to the perception, if not the reality, that he had either actively or passively undermined former leaders Phil Goff and David Shearer. That was added to by the tally of blunders subsequently -- the glossing up of his CV, the trust to disguise donors to his leadership election campaign late last year -- and his apparent reluctance to come clean about it. Cunliffe was only just starting to stabilise.

As this column pointed out last week, from tomorrow Labour's caucus can change the leader by majority without going through the lengthy process of a full membership vote. It's a safe bet that there are those in Labour who are trying to persuade Grant Robertson to accept their backing and step up to it. There's no question he would have the numbers. The only real question is whether they have Robertson.

After Williamson resigned, media were put through the spectacle of Mr Cunliffe responding with the same two lines line over and over again to every question. Williamson's actions, he said, were "yet another example of the decline in standards of this National Government" and any minister who did such a thing under his reign would be "instantly gone".

Snap, Mr Cunliffe.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

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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