Audrey Young

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

Now he's running the show

In his first week at the helm, Labour's new leader, David Cunliffe, talks to political editor Audrey Young about leadership, role models and the powerful legacy of Helen Clark

David Cunliffe says he no longer cares whether his colleagues like him. Photo / Brett Phibbs
David Cunliffe says he no longer cares whether his colleagues like him. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It may be too soon to say what sort of leader David Cunliffe will make for Labour, but it's not too soon to say what sort of leader he wants to be.

He has had some good bosses in his time, not least former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

"She was an amazing leader in my view," he tells the Weekend Herald. "She had strength of purpose, commitment to the cause, and inclusive leadership style that brought the whole caucus together."

In that respect he would like to emulate her, he says, even if there are aspects he would be less keen to emulate.

Really? Specifically how would he not like to emulate her?

A different hairstyle, he says.

It is Cunliffe humour - which is less of a joke and more a signal that he is in a very good mood.

And why wouldn't he be? He won the leadership contest against Grant Robertson and Shane Jones and, though it surprised no one that his colleagues didn't back him in big numbers, he has established a power base in the party and union vote that should force his detractors to get in behind.

Cunliffe is sitting on the sofa in the Leader of the Opposition's office on the third floor of Parliament.

It was Clark's office until the 1999 election, the year she moved into the Beehive for nine years and the year Cunliffe became an MP.

Within a term he had been made a minister and by the end of her rule she had been impressed enough to give him the huge portfolio of Health.

Q: Have you talked to Helen Clark yet?
DC: Since the vote? No.
Q: She hasn't rung? She hasn't sent a message?
DC: No.
Q: I'm shocked.
DC: I know!

He's laughing in mock outrage. Then, more seriously, it's clear he doesn't quite believe it. He says he hasn't cleared every message on his phone and there could be a text from her somewhere.

It's rumoured Cunliffe was her choice in the contest against David Shearer in 2011 and against Robertson in 2013.

A month after getting the Health portfolio, Cunliffe once famously bit back at National's Tony Ryall during Question Time: "I'm running this show!"

If he feels like doing a Tom Cruise and jumping up and down on the sofa because he is again running a show, he is keeping a lid on it.

Cunliffe is focused and does not step out of political mode for a second.

He is happy, but not too happy, because he knows that upheavals are happening in the Leader's Office with the change of command.

In the corridor outside, staff are shifting boxes and files and political paraphernalia such as Grant Robertson's big red portrait of Peter Fraser.

Robertson is vacating the deputy leader's office for David Parker, who didn't take sides in the leadership contest.

Cunliffe is acutely aware of image.

That acute sensitivity was evident on Sunday, when the result was announced in his New Lynn electorate office.

It was the same office in which he had launched his leadership bid three weeks earlier with a boisterous rally; the victory was a more subdued affair.

Gone was the outstretched evangelical stance, the booming speech, the garlands around his neck, and gone was the colourful painting of the MP himself against the backdrop of the Manukau Heads.

"A very kind constituent gave it to me for my 50th birthday present, which was lovely of him, and it didn't fit at home so I took it to the office and the staff put it on the wall, and it was there when we did our launch."

There was much sniggering about it on social media and he asked that it be taken down for the day the leadership result was announced.

"I thought it gave the wrong impression that it was all about me. Actually this isn't about me," he says.

"This is a project that we embarked on for New Zealanders and I'm here to lead a team to do a job and the job is to give Kiwis back their country."

At the victory event, too, the television cameras captured the moment Cunliffe rebuffed an Indian gentleman trying to put a garland around his neck.

So why did he do that? Apparently it was nothing as simple as avoiding criticism.

"I wanted the victory speech to be sober rather than triumphal," says Cunliffe. "This is not a victory. This is the start of a road. This is a big job that I am now called upon to do for the sake of other people and I don't want to be covered in flowers. I want to do the work and I want to get a result. And I'm not going to celebrate until after we win the 2014 election."

His wife, Karen, and two sons, William and Cameron, made a rare public appearance with him for the results.

Cunliffe made another speech that night at an electorate function before heading home to work until midnight then get up at 5am to begin a round of news media calls.

The only celebratory indulgence he is admitting to is a whisky at 11.30pm.

Sunday was a special day for Cunliffe, and not just because of the leadership result.

He began it by driving down to Tauranganui Marae near Port Waikato. It was the 100th commemoration of the day Premier Richard John Seddon had invited King Mahuta to serve on the Legislative Council. Seddon was Cunliffe's great-great-uncle and King Mahuta was the great-great-grandfather of Cunliffe's caucus colleague and loyal supporter Nanaia Mahuta, who says the fact he made the effort on that of all days was noted and appreciated by the 300 people there.

He gave a mihi, then a speech in English and drove back to Auckland for the results.

At his first press conference at Parliament on Monday, Cunliffe talked about the importance of the event for him, saying it was a special moment to renew the bonds and "to recommit myself to the Treaty partnership".

"I absolutely believe that the Treaty partnership is fundamental to our identity as New Zealand and is something all New Zealanders want to be proud of. It is something that sets New Zealand apart, frankly, from every other country that suffered Anglo conquest."

There were echoes of similar sensibilities in his maiden speech: "This is the first Government of the 21st century. A new generation is called upon to take stewardship, on trust, of a great taonga: the taonga of Aotearoa, of our nationhood, and of our nation itself. To pass that taonga on to our mokopuna, we must meet new and great challenges. If we fail, I fear that we may lose that taonga."

How those views translate into his leadership is yet to be seen. But much will depend on whether he can create the same cohesion as Clark did from different caucus factions.

Clark had what Cunliffe calls "a bolted-on relationship with Michael Cullen and a very close relationship with Phil Goff and Annette King.

"The cohesion across those senior members provided a platform that really was the basis of the last Labour Government."

And though he sees similarities between Parker and Cullen, he wants Parker to be "who he is: a person of high intellect, absolute integrity, someone who is trusted by every member of our caucus, who everybody feels they can come to, as I hope they will with me, someone who can keep a weather eye on the quality of policy development and on the budget commitments, someone who can give confidence to the business community that we are serious about the economy".

Cunliffe says his hope is that with the clear mandate the leadership election delivered - in which he was overwhelmingly supported by members and unions, though not MPs: "we have the clear opportunity to move forward without having to look over our shoulders at those internal matters.

"My responsibility, as a new leader, is to bring the team together, to be a unifying leader and to ensure that we can forge the same kind of consensus with our senior team that Helen was able to forge with Michael."

The initial afterglow of his victory suggested his task may not be too hard, but the afterglow has dimmed. Reports emerged from the Labour offices this week that some staff reapplying for their jobs were being asked how they voted in the leadership contest. Cunliffe's office issued a statement stating that "no staff member has been asked as part of the interview process following the change of Labour leadership how they voted in the leadership contest or whether they were eligible to vote".

The corollary appears to be that some may have been asked informally.

Cunliffe says he no longer cares whether he is liked by his colleagues.

"I used to. I think I am learning that what is required in this role is to get a job done."

That is just as well because much of the caucus factionalism in the past few years has been about him: his style, his substance, his ego, his loyalty to Goff and Shearer, his ambition, his ability to deliver Labour both its traditional vote and votes from the centre and what he really stands for.

As he claims himself, he feels comfortable in the boardroom and the smoko room.

"I wouldn't call myself a socialist in the classic definition because I don't believe the state should own the means of production but I do call myself a social democrat because I do believe the state has an important role in a mixed economy and I believe unregulated free markets in some case, left to their own devices, end up with results that are both bad for business and bad for people.

"Your sweet spot is where markets work competitively and governments have to put boundaries around that. Governments have to ensure that the value that is created is shared reasonably evenly."


Cunliffe worked for a time as a business consultant for the Boston Consulting Group and a diplomat at the New Zealand embassy in Washington, where he had been a liaison officer with Congress and had to keep his displays of political affection under wrap.

It wasn't long after he returned to New Zealand from Washington in December 1995 that he rang his local MP, Judith Tizard, in Auckland Central saying "I'd like to join the party and I'd really like to help."

"For me that was a great liberation to be very public about how I felt about politics."

He became involved in Tizard's 1996 campaign, chaired her electorate committee the year after, and won the Titirangi selection in 1999.

They have remained friends and the former MP was in Wellington this week, first for Lianne Dalziel's valedictory speech, and then staying on to lend a helping hand around the Labour's leader's office.

Former ministerial adviser and Auckland Council lawyer Wendy Brandon will start as his chief of staff in 10 days.

Any leader or minister will testify to the importance of getting the right people around you.

Cunliffe said he had some very good bosses at Boston Consulting Group - "a guy called Alan Jackson who, in his post-BCG phase, has latterly been the chair of Housing New Zealand, was an amazing brain, amazing business experience, and a man of real integrity".

Cunliffe says he also very much enjoyed working for the late Denis McLean when he was ambassador to Washington. He had been a lovely man and very, very good boss "even though he even though he wasn't a great friend of Helen Clark".

He has more to say about Clark, too.

"Helen was a very good boss, I have to say. She was a very good delegator. She was very clear, she was very exacting. You always knew where you stood. It wasn't warm fuzzies. She had a lot of integrity and that's all good."

So are good leaders born or can you learn to be a good leader?

Cunliffe answers somewhat defensively. "I believe I can learn. I make lots of mistakes, everybody does. But I try honestly to listen, to find out what I could do better and to learn from it.

"I know I have a big step up to make to this job and this desk. It is different from any I have done before. But I've got tons of energy. I'm a hard worker and I'm a good listener and I can bring a team around me to do it."

- NZ Herald

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