Two political careers of substantial impact are ending with an unlikely show of brotherhood, writes Tim Murphy

David Cunliffe and John Key, the might-have-been and the has-been of their political parties, coordinated the announcement of their departures from Parliament on Wednesday as they rushed for the exit doors.

They both give their valedictory speeches to Parliament and leave in the next few weeks.

You’d have to presume it was Key’s ‘elegant solution’ to allow him to get out of the place as soon as possible without triggering a by-election in his Helensville electorate.  Cunliffe gets to fold his cards early too with no need for a by-election in New Lynn – and the relative standings of the National and Labour parties in the House remain intact.

Timing is everything and Key had it.  Cunliffe didn’t.

Both had successful careers overseas before politics. Cunliffe had been a diplomat and worked for the international business advisers Boston Consulting Group. He famously studied at Harvard University and wrote a dire poem lauding the Ivy League college. He entered Parliament in 1999, three years ahead of Key and rose to the cabinet in the Clark government from 2002 to 2008.

Key’s path to the Prime Ministership through a career with Merrill Lynch in foreign exchange dealing and then taking over from Don Brash as National’s leader is better known. His walking away from the top office in December was bold and self-aware, the latest example of his capacity to throw overboard anything unlikely to help win National an election. This time it was himself.

The early exiteers were similar in that their colleagues in the Labour and National Parties and caucuses recognised them early as smart, ambitious and capable. Cunliffe tall, imperious, heavily annotated in his public presentations and strangely hard to warm to. Key an improviser, relatable, ruthless and fixated on what his every move would do for National’s poll ratings.

While Labour’s caucus struggled to not elect Cunliffe leader, some famously adopting the ‘Anyone But Cunliffe’ mantra, the wider party and unions went for him after the awkward, likeable David Shearer.  

National’s caucus found itself in a kind of ‘No One But Key’ position for all 12 years of his chairmanship. 

They are two big egos, Cunliffe telling National questioners in Parliament when he was Minister of Health that “I’m running the show now” but Key seemingly more able to allow others like Bill English and Steven Joyce to run much of the show.

While Cunliffe is a might-have-been, the Prime Minister who wasn’t, he was a substantial politician as a minister.  Remember it was him who finally called out the Government of Telecom, New Zealand’s most influential corporate lobbyist and arm-twister, when Minister of Communications, taking the decision to unbundle the local loop.  That meant throwing the phone and data market open to real competition, leading to the break-up of Telecom and the internet and mobile freedoms we have today.

Telecom was the irresistible force to past ministers’ movable principles. National’s Maurice Williamson failed to tame the beast.  Labour’s Paul Swain talked big for a while and did nothing.

Cunliffe stood up for consumers, his initial plan leaking to the media and wiping billions off Telecom’s share price. 

He was substantial, too, in the boldness of the policies his Labour Party took to the last election: capital gains tax and raising the age for national superannuation. His successor threw them overboard, Key-style, but they were radical in the New Zealand context and long term.  Bill English’s dubious neutering of Labour now over superannuation eligibility shows Cunliffe was ahead of his time.  Timing. Again.

Who knows, Cunliffe might well have been a capable Prime Minister. But he’ll be remembered for a poor campaign in 2014, a worse result, an unfortunate example of mis-speaking when he uttered the notorious “I’m sorry for being a man” line to a women’s refuge gathering.

Key would have said, and probably did afterwards, that he was pretty relaxed about being a man.

He’s said to be someone who, once a person is no longer critical to whatever it is Key is dealing with, can blank formerly warmly-embraced individuals. 

Whatever it takes.  And now Parliament is not going to be on his agenda so Parliament gets the blanking treatment. The haste with which he has managed his departure from the House is vaguely concerning: those constituents in Helensville won’t get to see more of the man they hardly saw for all his years in Government.

Key doesn’t want to hang around where he isn’t needed, or can’t practically intervene.  

Cunliffe, too, is clearly over the House, his colleagues and the electorate of New Lynn.

But in fairness, he did roll up his sleeves there right until the end. Last weekend during the deluge that swamped New Lynn and nearby areas, one Titirangi resident looked up while digging a drain to divert the torrent and a man holding a spade came down his drive.  

“Want a hand?” he asked.  The resident had things under control and thanked him for the offer. Cunliffe departed to try to help someone else. No party officials or flunkies or media in tow.

The resident went inside and said to his wife: “I think Michael Cullen just came down the drive offering to help us”.


Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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