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

Claire Trevett: Labour wannabes tossed on a wine-dark sea

Cunliffe has by far the slickest operation. It showed in his launch, where he caught a headwind he is yet to tack out of. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Cunliffe has by far the slickest operation. It showed in his launch, where he caught a headwind he is yet to tack out of. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Having waved goodbye to Penelope, Labour's modern-day trio of Odysseuses embarked upon the set of challenges arranged for them before they could return to show they were worthy of her loyalty.

First up was the battle with the Cyclops, the one-eyed monster, who came in the shape of Prime Minister John Key, or, as Shane Jones has dubbed him, the $50 million gorilla. The scene of the battle was Question Time and the original plan was for it to go on over two days. Jones opted to warm up on a lesser monster for his first day, seeking out Steven Joyce rather than the Prime Minister.

Robertson stuck to the jobs issue, only to be told Labour's leadership attrition rate was exacerbating unemployment. Cunliffe chose the catch-all confidence question to allow him to traverse anywhere he wished. The minute he raised the issue of snapper, Key simply pointed out that the last time a Labour leader held up fish, his chips went down.

Labour MPs were in the unusual position of judging the questioners rather than the answers. They sat po-faced, desperate not to let slip the usual yelps of encouragement, lest it be construed as bias towards one of the candidates.

But National was more than happy to take up the slack in audience participation. The sport known as the Lampooning of Cunliffe had begun. Would the man who brought them "I'm running the show now", "get back in your box" and that 2011 classic, set in the Otara flea market, of "Tannoy on a Hot Van Roof Talking like a Bro" deliver another greatest hit?

He hasn't yet, but there are clear signs it is only a matter of time. The next day, Labour had changed its game plan and cancelled round two of the Question Time showdown. Instead, the only questions put to the Prime Minister, who was still picking his teeth clean from his feast the day before, were from Green co-leader Russel Norman and NZ First MP Denis O'Rourke.

The heroes had moved on to contend with the seductive calls of the Sirens, the potential coalition partners. Jones had pre-emptively blown the Greens off the rocks, spending the last year or so bagging them and taking the realistic stance that if Labour was to get its ratings back into the 40s, it might need to claim votes back from the Greens as well as National. The siren didn't even bother singing for him. But Cunliffe and Robertson both had to negotiate questions around the chances of Russel Norman getting finance.

The biggest obstacle is yet to come, and that is in wooing the favour of the six-headed monster Scylla: the Labour Party membership and unions who now have the power to strike down a hopeful contender with a ballpoint pen on a ballot paper.

It might be the Labour members who anoint the party's leader, but it is the wider public who anoint a prime minister. So the contenders do have to take some care not to alienate that wider public while in the process of securing the leadership.

Cunliffe has already veered close to dangerous turf at his campaign launch. He said he was "humbled" as he sat before the photos of all past elected Labour Prime Ministers with a larger portrait of himself hanging at enough of a distance that he wouldn't be accused of comparing himself to them. He wore a ulafala - the garland reserved for high chiefs in Pacific societies. There he promised to increase taxes, waved red roses about while hollering "the colour of socialism" and leaped up at the end like Usain Bolt winning the 100m sprint at the Olympics, punching his fists in the air.

It was a grand, very carefully targeted show and the Labour activists lapped it up. But too much of that sort of thing will demonstrate that many of the things the wider public like about Key are lacking in Cunliffe.

Cunliffe has by far the slickest operation. It showed in his launch, where he caught a headwind he is yet to tack out of. It showed in his taking on Wellington PR company The Ideas Shop to help with his media and advertising material. His campaign so far has been far more attention grabbing than that of Grant Robertson, who spent the first few days having to deal with the inevitable questions about what impact his sexuality might have on his chance of becoming Prime Minister. He managed to resist saying it was possibly less of an electoral turn-off than Cunliffe's pomposity could prove to be.

As for Jones, it's almost certain Penelope will have run off with another suitor. The fun for him is not in the ending, but in the journey itself and his own larger-than-life character has ensured he has snared his share of attention - probably more than the other two.

As for the others, despite the public shows of bonhomie between the three so far in an attempt to show a party undivided, there is a warning within The Odyssey for the two losers - at the end, the victorious Odysseus not only wins back Penelope, but slaughters all her other suitors.

- 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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