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Q + A - David Cunliffe

Q + A
Episode 18
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

SUSAN Well the Labour Party election congress underway in Wellington with 11 weeks to election day, it is a chance for the party to focus on the campaign ahead. There’ve been some policy announcements too. Corin caught up with David Cunliffe just a short time ago.

CORIN Well David Cunliffe thank you very much for joining us on Q+A. You’ve been Leader now for what about 10 months or so. Do you think New Zealanders now know who you are?

DAVID CUNLIFFE – Labour Leader
Well I think they're beginning to, but there's more to do. I'm really enjoying getting out around the country meeting Kiwis in their communities, in their schools, their homes, their workplaces, and obviously there's a little more media around my life and my background, which is good to see.

CORIN I wonder if what we saw on Friday was a good insight to who you are. You were speaking about issues of violence against women, and you said you were sorry for being a man now. What was going on in your head when you were making that statement, was that you passionately – you know - what was happening there?

DAVID Look I passionately feel that issue and I don’t resile from a word of what I said, we all as people need to take responsibility, we need to step up to the plate about the fact that one in three women in New Zealand experiences domestic violence in their lifetime. And we had 20,000 women and children in refuges and shelters last year trying to escape violence. That’s horrific.

CORIN So what do you make of the criticism, because it did blow up regardless of right or wrong here. A lot of people felt, a lot of men felt really uncomfortable with that statement.

DAVID Yeah I realise it's a very uncomfortable area, and sometimes to confront difficult issues you have to take the odd risk. But people will know that I am straight up, that I am passionate and that I am built by belief.

CORIN You really wanted to make that comment, to say that you were sorry for being a man.

DAVID There was a comma in that sentence, not a full stop. In the context that we have such high levels of domestic violence, and it was a challenge like the white ribbon challenge to all men to take accountability for that in the same way. Not to say that they're perpetrators, but in the same way with the drink driving campaign, we say don’t let a mate drive drunk. Let's not turn a blind eye to this if we come across it.

CORIN So are you disappointed then that it's been picked up in the way it has because people have interpreted that as you saying you're sorry for being a man.

DAVID It's politics and I appreciate that our opponents will try to take things out of context and put the worst possible light on it, but that’s not going to stop me taking strong stands on issues I feel deeply about, and I will be leading as Prime Minister the cross portfolio effort to eliminate family and sexual violence, and leading a team to do that. That’s how strong I feel.

CORIN It is an insight into you isn't it, that you were there, you felt so passionate about it at that moment that you would say something like that, that might have actually caused some damage to a wider brand rightly or wrongly.

DAVID Look I don’t believe it has. I think as the media cycle washes through, what you'll see is that this issue will stick in people's minds as a Labour leader being prepared to if you like go out on a limb a bit to do what is right, and say what is important, which is that we should not as a community allow the situation to continue as it is. That will be the lasting impact of that statement, and sometimes in politics a little bit of passion for what you believe really matters rather than the tradition that New Zealanders have recently seen, which is such packaged plastic politics, that it's hard to see where the product end and the person begins.

CORIN I want to pick you up on that, it's an interesting point, because a couple of years ago when you went and did a speech in Avondale, which a lot of the people on the left of the Labour Party got very excited about. You attacked free market economics, you said for the last 30 years the policies have mostly been a failure. Where is the rhetoric, where is the David Cunliffe that we saw in that speech now?

DAVID Well listen in this afternoon. Listen in this afternoon to my speech because you might hear some similar sentiments, but look we're not anti-business. We believe in it and I'm sure Bill Shorten would agree, and in order to have a just society and a prosperous society, you have to grow the pie for everybody, and then you have to share it fairly. And I don’t think that there's any necessary contradiction between those two.

CORIN You were talking about dismantling those policies, those freemarket policies that have been put in place. What would you actually dismantle now.

DAVID Okay so let's be specific. It is those policies which like tax cuts for other income earners, or the privatisation of state assets from 100% ownership of the population to just 2% - those are obvious examples of the neo liberal policies…

CORIN So you'd put taxes up and the likes of Chris Trotter, the commentators who championed you back in 2012, are saying oh it's nothing in it, it’s timid.

DAVID I think that Chris probably didn’t see the maths and he didn’t realise in his column that actually cracking down on tax avoidance by raising the trust rate, brings in as much or more money than raising the personal rate to 36 cents. By the way, a capital gains tax which at full running is going to bring in 5 billion dollars a year, close to, 4 to 5 billion is the single biggest change to New Zealand tax policy in decades and it's one that I've personally championed for years.

CORIN Sure, where's the policy though to buy back assets?

DAVID Oh I think I've been really clear on record that we reserve the right to take action to rebuild and restore the Crown balance sheet, including the potential of buying back some assets. I've also said that'll be a case by case issue as opportunities arise to do the right thing, and we stand by both those statements.

CORIN So you might buy back assets?

DAVID We may well, and we would like to, and we will take opportunities as they arise and there’ll be more to say about that issue between now and the election I promise you.

CORIN So there's going to be a policy on buying back assets?

DAVID There will be more to say on that issue between now and the election I promise you.

CORIN If we could look at the polls now, back in February Labour was on 34%, you told Nine to Noon your goal was to get higher to the late 30s if not 40, those were your words. Now you seem to be aiming for 31.

DAVID Oh nonsense.

CORIN What's happened?

DAVID No no I've never said that, I've said I'm sure that we will be back up into the 30s…

CORIN 2 or 3%...

DAVID No no no, that is 2 or 3% just from the ground game.

CORIN You still want to get 40%?

DAVID I would live to get 40% and I'm sure we'll be well up into the 30s, and just remember in the last couple of election campaigns the National government or the National Party has dropped about 6% during the 3 months of the campaign. Now if they do that and we get 2 or 3% off the turnout, and make sure that our policy releases and our media and our comms are well placed, then I'm absolutely convinced we can win this election.

CORIN Okay, but the trend over the last 2 or 3 months has been down. Under David Shearer Labour was up around 34%, 35%, 36% in some instances. There has been a steady trend down since you have been leader to now what 29?

DAVID Well look I think we should be very clear about the rhythm and sequence and I'll be quite open with you. Of course we started off after the primary campaign with numbers around 36-37, that’s if you like the blush of enthusiasm.

CORIN Well you had 34% after the campaign, and I think you had 1 point balance in our poll like that campaign. ….

DAVID We had a good conference, we had a good by-election result, we had a reasonable effort I think around the asset sales campaign. I think it's true that it did go a little quiet over the summer break, and we had a number of changes in our team early in the next year which probably caused us to lose a bit of momentum if I'm honest, but we picked up from that, which is great. There's been, as you are well aware over the last couple of weeks, a sustained attempt at a smear campaign against Labour.

CORIN That’s politics, you fight back against that.

DAVID We are.

CORIN So you lost it?

DAVID No no we've gone through that, and I think our polls are rising again now, and we're back on the front foot. And what I'm really excited about is the strength of our team. We've got more than double the membership. We've done many times the amount of voter contact in this election year than we've had.

CORIN So it's the ground game …

DAVID The ground game is great and we've got a fully agreed manifesto early in the year. We have as series of policy rollouts.

CORIN Do you need more time?

DAVID More time is always good, but we can and will win this election.

CORIN If it doesn’t go your way this election, do you feel you're entitled to more time to get this party how you want to shape it, would you expect to remain leader after this?

DAVID Well look I'm absolutely confident that I have the full support of my caucus and the party. All my energies are going into winning this election and maximising the Labour Party vote, but I am confident that notwithstanding the outcome that I retain the confidence of my team.

CORIN What sort of unity is there, because one of the constant criticisms of this Labour Party under you is that you don’t have everybody swinging in behind you. I mean Trevor Mallard' Moa comment the other day was a classic example, he was thinking of himself not you.

DAVID Look I've got a terrific team. I think it's actually one of the most talented young teams that the Labour Party or any party has ever had before, they're fantastic.

CORIN But are they all pulling for you? Because Trevor Mallard looks like he's trying to save his own hide and his own seat, and isn't thinking about you, and that’s indicative isn't it?

DAVID Look local MPs are entitled to come up with courageous ideas for their own electorates, that one might have been just been a bit more innovative than most, but let's not take that one too seriously.

CORIN I mean you yourself, at the time when you were under a smear campaign attack, whatever it was, with the Donghua Liu issue, effectively sent a shot across the bow to your own caucus members that if they were to move against you, they would be scabs. Now that doesn’t suggest that’s a unified party.

DAVID Oh the point of that comment was simply to say that when the chips are down, progressive people always stick together, and my team has, they are, and they will, they are a fantastic team, dedicated people, and our candidates are coming through really strongly.

CORIN But it's suggesting that there are elements of that Labour Party which weren't going to stick with you, why did you say it?

DAVID There's no intention to suggest that.

CORIN I don’t understand then, why say it if you're not worried about some not being behind you.

DAVID I'm not worried. We've got a fantastic team, great candidates, great MPs, I think one of the brightest and most determined line-ups that you’ve ever seen from a Labour Party. Obviously a different policy direction but it reminds me pre ‘84 when a whole new generation of politicians came into parliament.

CORIN And is that new generation of centre ground politicians. Bill Shorten I've spoken to him about this and he said elections are won in the centre, Labour has to win in the centre. He was quite explicit. Can you be that explicit? Is that where you're going to win?

DAVID I think in New Zealand politics given the decline in turnout, there are two games that we need to win, certainly we're going to be reaching to the centre, to those people who perhaps aren't that political but they want to make sure that their homes, their families and their jobs are secure. We're certainly going to be speaking to them, but we're also speaking to those who've lost faith in politics completely, who perhaps mistakenly feel that it doesn’t matter what party's in power. We're going to give them very clear choices to motivate them to get out of bed on election day and get down to that voting booth.

CORIN But the people who put you in this job, the left wing, the unions of the Labour Party, they don’t want you to be in the centre, they want you to be teaming up with the Greens and going hard and being honest about being a true left wing party.

DAVID Labour's always been a broad church Corin, and what my whole party wants, what I want, and certainly what the whole caucus wants, is to win this election not for ourselves, so we can make a difference for New Zealand. And we know that that means that we've got to both reach to the centre and energise the base and the non-vote, and I believe we're capable of doing both of those things.

CORIN Did you give any consideration to asking the Greens to pop along for a speech or a chat at the conference?

DAVID Not at this time, but we have recently met with the Greens leadership, and that relationship is in excellent shape.

CORIN What was discussed there?…..

DAVID I never discuss in public what I discuss over dinner, but we had a great catch-up and I'm sure that relationship's in strong and positive shape.

CORIN And what about Laila Harre, I mean just over the last couple of days you’ve effectively ruled out Internet Mana being in Cabinet with you, but why would you rule out someone as clearly talented as Laila Harre who's been in Cabinet?

DAVID Oh I think Laila Harre on the personal level is a very talented politician, I have a lot of respect for her, and I'm sure in her own right she could have a contribution to make. What I'm being very clear about though is that I the Greens and potentially New Zealand First as with Labour the most likely parties to form a coalition Cabinet. Now I'm campaigning for the Labour Party vote. I'm here to promote Labour policy and I think if people want to change the government the most important thing that they can do is to vote Labour, because without a strong Labour Party we cannot achieve a change. Now the rest are really second order issues. Voting Labour is the way to change the government, and that’s what we want New Zealanders to understand very clearly between now and election day.

CORIN John Key's been asked this before, if there's something you could change overnight, he said the flag. Is there something that isn't necessary politics related that if you could change about New Zealand overnight would be?

DAVID You know I would want to close the gap between the haves and the have nots. I know you can't change that overnight, but I think the growing levels of inequality in our society are fundamentally driving a lot of the ills that are showing up in youth suicides, and domestic violence and the alcohol abuse. There are too many people in poverty, there's quarter of a million kids in poverty, that’s my number one priority. Turn that around.

CORIN David Cunliffe, thank you very much for joining us on Q + A.

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