Fran O'Sullivan: Unfounded resignation calls should be far from Cunliffe's mind

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David Cunliffe. Photo / APN
David Cunliffe. Photo / APN

Memo: David Cunliffe. Don't let your political enemies (that includes your frenemies) push you out of the Labour leadership ahead of the election.

Put aside the "Gotcha" politics that both you and John Key have been indulging in. Instead, get out and sell Labour's defining policies - something which you are exceptionally skilled at when you take a disciplined approach.

That's the kind of advice that Cunliffe should expect from his closest colleagues in the Labour caucus. Even after a disastrous week in which Labour plummeted to a 23 per cent poll rating - and the publication of that 11-year-old note that his opponents argue gave the lie to his claims he had not written a letter on behalf of controversial Chinese businessman and political donor Donghua Liu - his allies should be advising him not to let himself be spooked in the same way that David Shearer precipitantly stepped down when the pressure on his leadership became too intense.

There's been a strong element of Gotcha politics as far as Cunliffe is concerned from both sides of Parliament.

Cunliffe is nowhere near universally liked. Unlike Key, he is not a natural, or for that matter practised, charmer.

He is more like Helen Clark. Slightly awkward in large social situations unless he applies himself, but quite capable of being very engaging in small circles and - like Clark - he does have sufficient intellectual weight to explain and sell complex policies.

Cunliffe made a good fist of that at the 2011 election when he managed to convince even hard-bitten business people that the introduction of a capital gains tax in New Zealand was the right and principled thing to do.

Several other policies in Labour's electoral campaign bag are worth debating at this election, including the focus on inter-generational equity which National shamefully neglects.

But these policies aren't getting any play due to the news media's fascination with Gotcha politics and accessible, orchestrated stories like following Key about on the world stage.

There is already a media-fuelled expectation that Cunliffe should either step down or be rolled so that Labour's fourth leader in one parliamentary term can lead the party into the September 20 election.

This would leave precious little time for a replacement - be it Grant Robertson or Andrew Little - to bed their own leadership in place before going head-to-head with Key in the election campaign. It would almost certainly result in electoral defeat.

Similarly, the resignation calls Cunliffe faced after the Herald broke the story that the Labour leader had signed off a letter on behalf of Liu bordered on risible.

That letter was clearly a pro forma note written by his staffers. There was no element of special pleading. It's no wonder he had forgotten it. It should not have sparked a Gotcha call from political journalists.

Sure National has delighted in watching the long, slow, curving ball play out which revealed Cunliffe had signed off a letter to Immigration NZ a decade ago to inquire on progress on the Chinese businessman's residency application.

But it would reach the heights of delusion to equate this episode with the obvious transgressions that cost Maurice Williamson his ministerial role when he called police on Liu's behalf, and should have cost Judith Collins her place in the Cabinet when she overstepped the line in the Oravida saga.

This is what really matters when it comes to probity in New Zealand politics. Not the simple oversight of an anodyne and quite benign note to immigration authorities.

Reports from the US that Key quipped National had already taken out the only potential Opposition leader he was worried about - Shane Jones - deserve to be treated with a bit more professional scepticism.

If Key really thinks that, he should not have turned down media requests to go head-to-head with Cunliffe in the election campaign, a response which reveals more than a hint of arrogance and complacency by the PM.

The truth is that Cunliffe can be a stirring debater and is just as quick on his feet as Key.

Right now he's on the back foot. But the right place to deliver a Gotcha is the election - not in this rather desperate politicking dressed up as a major scandal this week.

- 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.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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