Like Wairarapa-Bush tackling Wellington for the Ranfurly Shield, the best Labour finance spokesman David Cunliffe could hope for was points on the board.

And just as the Lions indulged their opponents by crossing the Rimutaka Hill for the fixture, so the business audience at yesterday's Mood of the Boardroom launch listened politely during Cunliffe's first outing at the annual event.

Last year soon-to-be outgoing Finance Minister Michael Cullen jokingly thanked his "two supporters" among the corporate crowd.

His Labour successor's plan for winning the hearts and minds was more strategic.

He refrained, as Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly noted later, from taking a defensive position, instead humbly proffering that he was not there to "justify past positions that relate to a world that no longer exists" but to listen and learn.

He agreed with Finance Minister Bill English on a number of fronts. The current account deficit was too high and the nation's productivity growth too low; certainty around an emissions trading scheme had almost become more important than the details of it; and the tax system's heavy reliance on personal income tax was unsustainable.

Using almost wartime rhetoric he stressed a team approach - we were all "called to serve", and Labour wanted to embrace with business and the current Government in its growth agenda.

The shadow finance minister even went so far as to admit mistakes - the last Labour Government had underestimated the housing bubble and had been too slow to address it, he said.

However the best form of defence is attack and Cunliffe did not miss the chance to point out that Government MPs voted down a proposed inquiry into bank interest rates.

"It is not appropriate for the banks to hang on to three-quarters of a per cent of your money," he told the assembled business people. "Again, I call upon the Government to co-operate on an inquiry."

To the Finance Minister's retorts that there was little to be done and an inquiry by backbench MPs was not going to bring down interest rates, Cunliffe fairly pointed out that if banks did not pass on OCR cuts then monetary policy was not working and perhaps it was time to ask whether the OCR was the appropriate tool.

The exchange had been triggered by a question from the floor about how, if at all, the Government could address the volatile kiwi dollar - one of the major concerns of Mood of the Boardroom survey respondents.

One has to admire English for his honesty, but "we're open to suggestions" is possibly not what business wanted to hear.

There were no simple levers and all that could be done was to get the basics right, English said.

Getting the basics right included boosting exports and National would focus on practical solutions, starting by unpicking "misdirected" policy on business assistance.

Here Cunliffe scored a nifty drop goal. If axing the R&D tax credit and wiping the planned Fast Forward Fund was picking one's way cautiously through business assistance, then he'd hate to see what retrenchment looked like, he quipped.

Cunliffe was unlikely to have achieved any Labour converts out of the resolutely right-of-centre gathering but neither did he suffer a drubbing. Perhaps Wairarapa-Bush could learn a thing or two.