Happy Warrior: At his campaign launch on Monday, 26 August, David Cunliffe gave a powerful display of the sort of political evangelism that has made him the first choice of the Labour Party's rank and file.
THE TWO MAIN CONTENDERS for the Labour leadership may display radically different political styles, but both pursue substantially similar political goals. David Cunliffe goes after his foes with a boisterous, swashbuckling glee. Grant Robertson is a much more cautious and conciliatory politician. When the chips are down, however, neither Cunliffe nor Robertson are afraid to do battle with the Powers That Be.
Their contrasting styles are clearly evident in the two controversial interventions that helped to define their respective political careers. In Robertson’s case it was his 2005 intervention to secure the removal of interest payments from student loans. In Cunliffe’s case, the 2008 dismissal of the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board.
The General Election of 2005 was one of the closest fought in New Zealand’s political history. As the weeks wound down to polling day, the advantage shifted, relentlessly, from Helen Clark’s Labour Government to National and its hard-line neoliberal leader, Dr Don Brash. Labour needed a circuit-breaker: a policy to generate a solid surge of support from right to left; something to slow the Opposition’s momentum.
It was Robertson, the former student president, who came up with the idea of suspending interest payments on student loans while the recipients were still engaged in tertiary study. As a former president of the New Zealand University Students Association, he understood that his proposed policy not only gave every tertiary student in the country a strong financial incentive for voting Labour, but, by diminishing the need for parental subsidy, it also gave their Mums and Dads a similarly compelling reason for sticking with the Government.
Robertson understood from bitter personal experience the burdens of genteel middle-class poverty. His father’s imprisonment for embezzlement had left deep scars on the young Grant Robertson and his family. He knew what it costs some parents to keep their children’s aspirational goals in sight.
To secure his proposed policy change, however, Robertson had to go into battle with Dr Michael Cullen and Treasury – both of whom were strongly opposed to the pressure it would place on the Government’s accounts. But, Robertson had the Prime Minister’s ear. He understood how alarmed she’d become at the prospect of a Brash-led National Government.
Ultimately, Robertson, the consummate courtier, prevailed. Cullen relented. Treasury was (for once!) over-ruled. Interest payments were suspended. And Labour was returned to office.
The Consummate Courtier: The Only other credible claimant for Labour's crown is the party's Deputy Leader, Grant Robertson.
But, if Robertson is the consummate courtier, then Cunliffe is Labour’s happy warrior. Raised in an Anglican manse where the traditions of Christian Socialism ran strong, he has never shied away from the challenge laid down in John Bunyan’s classic protestant hymn “To Be A Pilgrim”.
Who so beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound
His strength the more is
This sort of Labour politician does not hesitate to do battle with the allegorical “lions”, “giants”, “Hobgoblins” and “foul fiends” that regularly assail his party on the road to the Holy City.
Then fancies fly away
He’ll fear not what men say
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.
Newly appointed to the health portfolio in 2008, Mr Cunliffe was called upon to lance the pustulent boil that the Hawkes Bay District Health Board had, in the eyes of the Labour Government, become. Within weeks the entire Board had been sacked and a Commissioner installed. A subsequent official inquiry produced a damning report.
Speaking in the Urgent Parliamentary Debate occasioned by the Report’s release on 18 March 2008, Mr Cunliffe declared, with typical swashbuckling eloquence: “This report has lifted the lid on a nasty little nest of self-perpetuating, provincial elites”.
The Hawkes Bay “county” set were incoherent with rage. No one could remember when anyone, let alone some grubby little Labour Party oik, had spoken to them in such insulting language.
To those whose job it is to observe the hurly-burly of parliamentary debate, however, Cunliffe’s words marked him out as a politician with something different to offer. Something that Labour’s battered constituency has not been given for the best part of thirty years.
Cunliffe offers Labour’s core vote a voice. Not the voice of a party whose purpose it is to pacify or cajole the Powers That Be, but a voice that is willing to accuse and condemn them. A voice to hold the “nasty little nests of self-perpetuating elites” accountable for what they have made of New Zealand, and what they have done to her people.
It is the only voice that can rouse the Labour vote from its disillusionment and despair. The Happy Warrior’s call to begin again the task of building Jerusalem in New Zealand’s green and pleasant land.
Of course, a happy warrior, such as Cunliffe, will need a consummate courtier, such as Grant Robertson. If only to reassure the elites that though they may be mightily shaken, they will not be fatally stirred.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 August 2013.