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Q + A - David Cunliffe

Q + A
Episode 29
David Cunliffe
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

CORIN Joining me now is Labour Leader, David Cunliffe. Good morning to you Mr Cunliffe. This is a tough result for Labour, how much personal responsibility do you take for this.

DAVID CUNLIFFE – Labour Party Leader
I certainly take my share I'm the Leader, I've been up front and this is not a result that any of us would have wanted.

CORIN When you took over you were polling up in the 30s, your vote has collapsed. How did that happen under your watch?

DAVID Well first thing let's be clear about the context, and apples and oranges doesn’t quite capture it when you come off a primary campaign, your party's been dominating the headlines for weeks, and of course it's a completely different situation months later when you're in a general election campaign.

CORIN But you were polling before that, at one point 36% in our polls.

DAVID Of course when we were polling at 36 – 37% we came off the primary and it's really hardly comparable. Look we're going to have to take some time as a party and work through what the public has been saying. We need to listen to New Zealanders. This is not a good situation, not only for the Labour Party but across the left. Clearly this has been an extraordinary campaign. It's been dominated by outsiders be they the Dirty Politics stuff, or be it Kim Dotcom.

CORIN Didn’t the problem start earlier than that though, because it was that first six months after you took on the job where you didn’t get that momentum going and there was a couple of gaps and things like that. I think you yourself said you had a slow start. What happened in that first six months? You didn’t seize the initiative.

DAVID Well I think some things went really well. We had a good conference, we had a good by-election in Christchurch East, we ran a good asset sales referendum campaign. But any leaders learns on the job it takes time to learn the ropes. It took time for Helen Clark in 1996, and I have learnt on the job.

CORIN So you want to lead for three years?

DAVID Well that’s a matter for the party. I believe that there is a need to change and modernise our party. The feedback that I've been getting from New Zealanders and from party members has been that they believe that I can do that. I'm going to look for a mandate and I believe I can do that.

CORIN So just to be clear, that’s what you want. You want the time to be able to rebuild Labour.

DAVID Exactly right. One year is not enough to do that because at least half of it is dominated by the hot part of the campaign, where you basically run with what you’ve got. That’s all you’ve got the time to do.

CORIN Talk us through the process for this though. So there would have to be presumably another primary, is that something you’ve contemplated?

DAVID Look I'll be meeting with senior colleagues and I'll be meeting with our senior party officials, and we will define that process, but in essence I will go to our caucus and I will say look we've got a big job of work ahead of us, I want a mandate to do that, and to lead you through that and into the next election. And then it will be a matter if others wish to stand and offer themselves for that role they will. We have a constitutional process that …

CORIN How quickly can that happen?

DAVID Well my view is it should be over by Christmas, so it should happen reasonably quickly.

CORIN Well we could have a primary in the Labour Party, a runoff possibly before Christmas?


CORIN And is that what the party needs in terms of stability? It just has to be done?

DAVID Well I don’t believe that rotating leaders is the key to changing and upgrading our party. If I did then I would simply stand down now. What I believe is we've got to look really hard at ourselves. We've got to modernise. We've got to rebuild our brand. I don’t believe it's a policy problem and I don’t believe it's a membership problem. But we need to really really dig deep so that we can give New Zealanders the chances that they need.

CORIN Well what is the problem because some people were saying this morning it was leadership, it was you?

DAVID Well I take my share of responsibility, but the feedback I've been getting is that I campaigned strongly…

CORIN But did you connect with voters. I mean your preferred Prime Minister numbers never really got above 14. Were you able to connect?

DAVID Well that’s actually not true, we had some polls above 16 and that’s a level comparable to other leaders in the past including Helen Clark. In fact it's a lot higher than for example Jim Bolger was at a similar time in the cycle. So I don’t think that says anything much, it's always tough for Leaders of the Opposition. It's a tough job. This campaign has been extraordinary, it's been extraordinary for two reasons. As I said we've had so much outside influence which has, no matter how it plays and no matter how it reflects on the current government, it simply takes the Opposition out of the headlines while it's playing. And in politics in the heat of an election campaign that is death.

CORIN But these were huge bombs being thrown at the government, you had a Cabinet Minister have to resign during the campaign.

DAVID And rightly so, and I think all of us were shocked about that.

CORIN And yet you still couldn’t get your message across, you still couldn’t you know attack the government in a way that hurt them.

DAVID Well the catch 22 is the deeper you dig into that the more you get tarred with the same debate and the same brush, and there's a balance that has to be struck between doing that and keeping your own party well clear of it. And the truth of it is that these matters weren't raised by Labour, we had no foreknowledge of Nicki Hagar's book or its content, and we certainly had nothing to do with Kim Dotcom. And let me say this, Mr Dotcom needs to look himself in the mirror, because he spent millions of dollars to drive the left down which is absolutely not what he said he wanted to do, and if he'd spent half of that on a get out to vote campaign, we'd be in a lot better shape today.

CORIN The Greens came to you midway through this year and put up a proposal where you campaign together as a coalition in waiting effectively. Why not go for that, why didn’t you go for that and present the public with a viable you know steady alternative of the two parties?

DAVID Largely because of two reasons, number one we needed to keep arms open to New Zealand First in the centre as well, and that’s always a balance so that we're not locked in with one potential coalition partner at the expense of the other. Rather what we tried to do was to build an open construct that both could be part of. Secondly of course there's always internal discussions about these things and I was balancing the need to unify internally while maintaining good relationships.

CORIN And do you still think that was the right decision to have courted Winston Peters effectively?

DAVID Well given the numbers as they were we had no option, because the only way that the centre left was going to govern was a three party approach.

CORIN But the option was to back yourself as Labour and the Greens to present a unified image, to stand on the stage you know shoulder to shoulder and present that you know structured coordinated image.

DAVID Let's get the context right. National was never lost in two terms. I can't remember a government that’s gone out on a 4% economic growth rate. This was always going to be a very tough election to win, and it is logical that if it was going to be a change of government, it was going to take more than Labour and the Greens, therefore we had to maintain the option of a three way coalition government. That is the reality of it, and that is what we had to work with. Now going forward for 2017 that’s potentially different and that is an issue, but we want to walk carefully. You know there is a real argument there about forming a closer working partnership across the parties of the progressive side of politics, and we do provide a more unified front to these … I'm just saying that is an issue for reflection. I certainly wouldn’t rule that out.

CORIN Alright I'm going to try and bring in Susan now if you can. I guess the thing is, if you'd have managed to lift your vote a little bit, then I guess that would have helped your cause of staying on as leader wouldn’t it? But the fact that Labour hasn’t even been able to increase or keep its vote at 27, that’s going to count against you isn't it?

DAVID Well at the end of the day Corin, this is not about me. I'm here to do a job for New Zealanders and for the Labour Movement, and I wouldn’t be offering on a mandate of change if I didn’t believe that I had the goods to deliver a victory in 2017, so New Zealanders get the chances that they need. Yes I've learned on the job, yes I've toughened up, and I will be toughened up going forward with that mandate. But let me be very very clear. This was always a tough election to win. We've done the best that we could, and the downscaling of the left vote is not simply a Labour matter. The Greens have been hurt proportionately just as much as Labour.

SUSAN Look we're interested to know on the panel here Mr Cunliffe, we've been debating it this morning, and you said you took your share of the responsibility, we're discussing how much is your responsibility as Leader, how much is other factors. Give us a percentage, how much blame are you taking, 50%, 60%, 40%?

DAVID I don’t know how you'd quantify it frankly.

SUSAN Well you were a big factor, and John Key's a big factor for the right isn't he? Would you be half? Would that be a fair number do you think?

DAVID I just don’t know how you'd quantify it.

SUSAN But you must be a significant factor?

DAVID Well of course as Leader I'm the guy up the front, and I do take responsibility, and I think we do need a process of change going forward and I'm looking to the party for a new mandate to do that.

SUSAN There was another point Steven Joyce made earlier, how do you actually miss the fundamental fact that the economy's going along okay and that people are feeling alright, and are you missing that at this point?

DAVID Well I think that is a big factor. What we've tried to point out to New Zealanders on the trail Susan is that the peak has passed. Dairy prices are down 45%, log prices are down even more. The milk payout might be only $5 even next year, that'll be really tough for our rural communities. The issue that New Zealanders will face is that there never was a long term plan from this government, but for now they seem to have go away with it.

SUSAN The election's over. Spend time with your family today?

DAVID Oh I'm going to be busy today. I am calling together senior colleagues and party officials just to make sure that we have a clear process going forward into our next caucus, and obviously there's a fair bit of media to do. So I'm not looking at relaxation any time soon.

SUSAN Thank you for your time this morning.

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