Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Leaders primed for face-off

David Cunliffe says a unified Labour will be taking the fight to the Government. Photo / Natalie Slade
David Cunliffe says a unified Labour will be taking the fight to the Government. Photo / Natalie Slade

The new Leader of the Opposition, David Cunliffe, will face off against John Key in Parliament today, his first and only chance to confront the Prime Minister across the chamber in the next four weeks.

Mr Key's extensive overseas travel schedule and two weeks of recess mean that the next time they meet after today will be October 15.

The Labour caucus will meet this morning for the first time since David Shearer announced his resignation on August 22, and will elect a deputy.

Mr Cunliffe hinted yesterday he would be recommending his leading rival, Grant Robertson, in a move to reconcile past divisions.

"Peace is breaking out all over the place," Mr Cunliffe told reporters at Parliament.

"You will see in the next couple of days just how good the detente is."

Asked if he would embrace his enemies, as Helen Clark had done in 1996, he said, "Yes, I will.

"There's a new train leaving the station. I want everybody on it. It's up to them if they don't wish to be on it. There is an honourable and dignified way of dealing with that."

The whips are likely to be Cunliffe loyalists from the leadership battle, Iain Lees-Galloway and Sue Moroney.

Current chief whip Chris Hipkins was one of the most vocal Cunliffe critics at the time Mr Shearer sacked the New Lynn MP from the front bench for disloyalty.

Mr Cunliffe said he would be expecting a heightened performance from the Labour caucus.

"We will be having expectations and accountabilities. We do need to be a high-performing team."

The raw material in the caucus was excellent, he said.

"I think we can improve our processes, structures and systems."

Mr Cunliffe and Mr Key traded compliments and insults yesterday afternoon at respective press conferences.

Labour is expected to use today's much-anticipated encounter to further its accusations that National governs for the benefit of a few, not the many.

"We will be taking the fight to the Government," Mr Cunliffe said. "We will be on notice that the Government's easy days are over." He said that as a person he liked Mr Key and he had many interesting attributes.

They were backbenchers together in West Auckland before Mr Key became Prime Minister.

"That means I am not fazed by John Key. I believe I have his number and I believe he knows I do."

Mr Key said there were certainly no hard feelings or bad blood between the pair: "But in the end the election really isn't going to be about whether I like David Cunliffe and want to have a beer with him."

It would be about who could take the country forward. "I still think election 2014 will be tight."

The centre right and the far-left bloc "are not a million miles apart" so it would be a tough 12 months.

He believed Mr Cunliffe would perform better than David Shearer, but said Phil Goff and Helen Clark were good in the House and they ultimately lost elections.

"He's actually my fourth Labour leader and frankly the rhetoric is roughly the same from any one of them."

- NZ Herald

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