Valedictory Statement – David Cunliffe

Remember David Cunliffe? He was one of the better ministers for the Clark government, and later led Labour to a bad result in the 2014 election, failing popularity tests within his own part let alone with the public.

Last year he indicated he had a better job to go to and would leave Parliament as soon as he could without causing a by-election in his New Lynn electorate.

On Tuesday he gave his valedictory speech in Parliament. I guess he is not an MP soon, if not now.


Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE (Labour—New Lynn):

Te papa pounamu

Aotearoa New Zealand

Karanga, karanga, karanga;

Ngā tupuna

Haere, haere, haere;

Te kāhui ora te korowai o tēnei Whare;

E tū, e tū, tū tahi tonu

Ki a koutou ōku hoa mahi ki Te Kāwanatanga;

Noho mai, noho mai, noho mai

Kia tau te rangimārie ki a tātou katoa;

Ka ao, ka ao, ka awatea.

[Authorised translation to be inserted by the Hansard Office.]

They say that giving a valedictory speech is a bit like being buried alive; it is intended to be permanent, it is usually followed by a wake, and you get to witness the eulogies. Having failed miserably to obey Holyoake’s advice to breathe through my nose on my way in here, his advice may be more useful on the way out. May I thank colleagues from all sides who have joined us today—yes, I really am going. To all of the friends and family who have joined us from New Lynn and all around New Zealand, it is profoundly moving to have you all here. Thank you so very much for attending.

I think our early lives frame why we are all here. My parents were from a politically mixed marriage. For years, they actually cancelled each other out at the polling booth and probably should have saved the petrol. My father, the Rev. Bill Cunliffe—the “Red Reverend”—was the son of railway workers and miners. He was the first in his family to go to university. Priests, poets, and politicians—the Cunliffes were always idealists.

My mother’s family were National-voting farming folk. They just got stuff done. My mother was one of four feisty daughters and ahead of her time. She nursed around the world for a decade, starting in post-war Africa. But despite my mother’s pleas to avoid politics at the breakfast table, ours was never a household short of opinions—it still is not, as I look to my sons—or, as an Anglican vicarage, was never short of opportunities to meet and help the needy.

As a kid, I helped my dad with Labour Party chook raffles at the Pleasant Point pub because he was chairman of the Point branch and on Sir Basil Arthur’s LEC. I was also caned in the third form for biffing a mate who called me a “Labour poof”, so I learned some of my politics by osmosis and some by more direct means. My childhood in small-town rural New Zealand was both idyllic and formative. From Te Aroha to Te Kūiti to Pleasant Point, afternoons were spent fishing, weekends playing rugby, and holidays farm labouring or rousying in a shearing gang. Those are things you can definitely find on my CV.

Politics, they say, is like malaria; once it is in your bloodstream, it is really hard to get rid of. I really caught the bug as a Foreign Service officer tramping Capitol Hill in Washington for the New Zealand Embassy. But it was not until I got back to New Zealand that I got to indulge it. In 1999, thanks to an amazing Titirangi campaign team, we turned a National-held marginal into a safe Labour seat. The campaign theme was so simple, I can still remember it: cops, docs, trees, jobs, and kids. Not a bad line if we are stuck for one in 2017.

About that time I featured in a Young Labour fund-raising calendar as a gladiator. Go figure. Marian Hobbs was a nun on a motorbike, and Trevor and Steve were the Blues Brothers because they were cool.

Hon Trevor Mallard: A long time ago.

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: It was a while ago. But, in any case, picture the class of ’99 washing into Parliament with huge energy. We actually staged a backbench revolt in the Finance and Expenditure Committee to hold up the demutualisation of the New Zealand Stock Exchange, preventing a hostile takeover by the ASX and demanding a proper regulatory framework that may have been good for economic sovereignty, but we got our ears boxed for our enthusiasm. Likewise, chairing the Commerce Committee in my first term, we did not sugar-coat too many pills after 9 long years of opposition. I must have mellowed with age, because the Regulations Review Committee, which I chaired this term, has never put anything to the vote, and I thank members on both sides of that committee for their collegiality and professionalism.

The years 1999 to 2000 saw business pushback against the Clark Government’s reforms. It was countered with our very own “smoked salmon offensive” of canapé and conversation. My small part in that was tragically outed when I erroneously emailed a plan to Jenny Shipley’s office. When it turned up on the 6 o’clock news, it took precisely 2 seconds for Prime Minister Helen Clark to ring me and share her views on the story with me. You know what I mean: “Yes, Helen.” Jonathan Hunt gave me two excellent pieces of advice that first term that stuck: never forget you are here only because you have Labour next to your name, and knock every door in your electorate in your first term, because once your constituents know that you are there for them, they will forgive your later time in Wellington. I have loved being a local MP. To the good people of New Lynn, thank you for letting me represent you. I hope I have done the job justice.

MPs come to Parliament not only to serve their district but also to contest ideas and policies. We are lucky that we have this institution, that we have the media to cover it, and that we have healthy debate. Since I first walked into this place, my political values have been grounded in a very simple belief: that all people are created equal and that, therefore, they all deserve equal opportunity, dignity, and respect; that markets make good servants but bad masters; and that it is the Government’s job to ensure that the economy serves our people and not the other way around.

In a small country, we are all in it together. If we do not educate all our young, who is going to pay for the superannuation and healthcare of tomorrow? If all our people do not have warm, dry homes, some of our kids will get sick and cannot learn, and if all people do not have jobs that pay a living wage, we will all be the poorer for it. Those are principles that we worked hard to deliver on in the fifth Labour Government, and the next Labour Government will too.

I was fortunate to cut my teeth in the Beehive with Sir Michael Cullen, surely one of New Zealand’s greatest finance Ministers, and under the leadership of Helen Clark. I always thought that to work with one of them would have been lucky; to work with a team of two was extraordinary. But it did not take me long to work out that the real job of an Associate Minister is photocopying, which is shorthand for doing anything else that senior Ministers either do not have the time or the inclination to do. So I got to ask State-owned enterprises why they were not writing bigger cheques to the Minister of Finance and to ask the IRD why the child support system pleased absolutely nobody. A highlight was making sandwiches with Trevor Mallard for that modern miracle, the State sector Budget round. Michael Cullen described the fiscal balance as the difference between two very large numbers that bounce around a lot—Grant is smiling; he knows—but balance them he did, with nine straight surpluses and KiwiSaver and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to boot. They have stood the test of time, and I believe they are crying out to be built upon.

In information and communications technology (ICT), I watched Hon Paul Swain get sliced and diced by the then monopoly Telecom after the 2001 Fletcher inquiry called time on that neo-Liberal version of The Emperor’s New Clothes known as “self-regulation”. It sounds a bit like self-flagellation, but less useful. When, after the 2005 election, Helen Clark asked me to take on the ICT portfolio, we started a broad-based stocktake review immediately, and after 6 months of research it was a compelling business case for pro-competitive regulation. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, we placed high security around all of the paperwork, but that did not stop a Beehive messenger slipping a copy of the Cabinet committee papers to someone from Telecom at a cycle club meeting. The resulting protest from Telecom was, however, too late; Cabinet had already approved the far-reaching package that unbundled and operationally separated Telecom and overhauled the regulator. Taking legal advice, we released the package that very day, and despite the short-term impact on share prices generated by the loss of monopoly rents, as predicted, investment in the sector doubled, retail prices fell, and broadband roll-out took off. The current Government has continued that work, and good on it. New Zealand is now amongst one of the best-served telecommunications markets in the world, and Kiwis really did get faster, cheaper broadband.

As immigration Minister, my focus was on protecting human rights and getting the skills we needed to move New Zealand forward. I learnt pretty quickly that moderate, skill-driven immigration helps build a modern, connected New Zealand. But too many people too quickly puts undue pressure on infrastructure and communities, all in the name of grabbing more GDP. No prizes for guessing which zone we are in now!

Inheriting the health portfolio a year before a general election was bound to be fun. In my first week, senior doctors were about to go on strike. The headlines screamed “system failure”. The strike was averted after a long liquid dinner in my Beehive office with the district health board and senior doctors’ representatives. The only condition was no one was allowed to leave until the deal was signed, which was actually at 5.30 the next morning.

Building on the work of previous Ministers, we accelerated universal bowel cancer screening—something that still has not happened; we integrated service planning for cardiology, health, IT, and other specialities; we boosted mental health funding, which still needs doing, and kept a strong focus on public health. I still believe that there is huge benefit in a free or low-cost, world-class health system that is nationally integrated and reaches right into communities.

Going into Opposition in 2008 was a shock for the Labour Party. The global financial crisis had made sure of it for our Government, and I think we had also lost connection with the people and some of our own members. It has been, as it is for most parties, a long, hard road back, but it does give you time to reflect on what really matters.

My time in several economic portfolios led me to some pretty straightforward conclusions. New Zealand, as Grant knows, does not save enough. What we do save, we invest in the wrong things. Without enough saving, investment is too costly and jobs are too few. KiwiSaver was a good start, but it needs a boost, and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund must be made sustainable. We invest less than half of the OECD average in research and development, and yet that smart stuff is what is going to win us markets and give our kids access to the global jobs of the future.

What capital we do have, we spend on the wrong things, like bidding each other’s house prices up. I remember my horror when I found the first family in Kelston living in a garage. We got the dad a job, the kids are now at medical school, but, tragically, you cannot find many garages to park a car in these days in South Auckland. New Zealand has become a speculator’s “pavlova paradise”: no capital gains tax, negative gearing, weak rules on foreign land bankers, and throw in tax loopholes big enough to drive an Apple through.

It is time we put our policies where our principles are, not only because a fair go is right but because the evidence is compelling: more equal societies do better economically too. In New Zealand, inequality is actually holding us back. It is crippling our ability to do well as a country. The poor are getting poorer, the middle is working harder just to stand still. With nearly all of the wealth created in the past decade attaching, on average, to the top 1 percent, a smaller and smaller share of national income is actually going to wage and salary earners. At some stage, hopefully soon, it has got to reach a tipping point. Notwithstanding that, as the late, great John Clarke said: “We don’t know how lucky we are.”—I think he said “Trev”.

This side of the House makes no apology for fighting inequality, investing in people and smarts, and celebrating all that is good in this beautiful, diverse, and innovative country, and much of that, thank goodness, we all share. That was the message I hoped would resonate with many New Zealanders during my short time as Leader of the Opposition, including some of the missing million who could not be bothered to turn out to vote at all because they could not see the point any more. I could write a book about the 2014 election campaign, but I do not think anyone would believe it, or possibly read it. But, in any case, that campaign was one of the most bizarre the country has ever seen. We had Kim Dotcom, Donghua Liu, and dirty politics coming out our ears, but what the Labour Party did not have enough of was time: time to heal our old wounds, time to raise the money, and time to build the systems to get our message through. Mike Moore once said that the easiest way to be wrong in politics is to be right too soon. I have no regrets for standing up for what I believe in, though I recognise that my delivery could at times have done with some work. And no, family violence is still not OK.

So it was a huge privilege to be able to lead the New Zealand Labour Party, and I am indebted to all who were part of that campaign. I want to commend my successor, Andrew Little, and his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, and all my colleagues, who are now building for the 2017 campaign that will give New Zealanders a real choice for a fresh start.

Progressive politics has been my passion for these last 18 years, but if politics is like malaria—a recurrent fever—I think I might be just about cured. I have done what I can, and the time really has come to move on. I thank members for coming along to make sure I really mean it, but, unlike David Lange, I am not even going to joke about changing my mind, because I am lucky enough—I mean this—to be able to change tacks in my own time, in my own direction, and without a by-election, because Labour did so well in the last two I just could not inflict another one on members opposite. [Interruption] Lighten up, I am going.

Mr Assistant Speaker, thank you for allowing the electorate offices of all our departing members to continue to serve needy constituencies through these short months of interregnum. They say—this is unfair—that politicians are a mile wide and a millimetre deep; that may be the Bellamy’s catering. I am, however, looking forward to returning to the private sector and getting stuck in to some deeper issues, consulting to businesses, iwi, and regions.

So I am moving on with a real sense of optimism and excitement and, of course, a huge deal of gratitude. It is not possible—we all know this—to commit to a life in politics without the generous and selfless support of family and of friends. There are so many people to thank, it is impossible to do justice to them all. For some, I will convey privately the gratitude that time and place does not allow me to do today. To my long-standing electorate agents Sue Hagen and Lusi Schwenke: you have been with me through virtually the whole of my time in politics, and you have been there through the tough times. I could not have wished for better support or better friends. Thank you.

To my talented researcher Kris Lal; my dedicated executive assistants Reremoana Fuli, Esther Robinson, David Hawkins, Paul Grant, Sue Piper, Gay Pledger, and others; to my former Labour Leader’s Office staff, including Karl Beckert, Wendy Brandon, Rob Carr, Simon Cunliffe, Carolyn Dick, Rob Egan, Chris Harrington, Neale Jones, Matt McCarten, Deborah Manning, Elizabeth Munday, Dinah Okeby, Bronwyn Presland, Bridget Service, and Clint Smith—not forgetting, in the whips’ office, Emma Williams and Peter Hoare and my former ministerial staff, some of whom are in the gallery today: thank you all so much for what you do for New Zealand, and thank you for what we did together.

To the Labour Party leadership, especially presidents Nigel Haworth and Moira Coatsworth, general secretaries Andrew Kirton and Tim Barnett, as well as the thousands of volunteers and members who give so selflessly to build a better New Zealand; to our affiliates in the union movement, especially my friends the late Helen Kelly and the late Peter Conway; to Sam Huggard and Jill Ovens and friends here today; and to Richard Wagstaff, Angus McConnell, Chris Flatt, Joe Fleetwood, Bill Newsom, Robert Reid, and many others: kia kaha, e hoa.

To the incredible New Lynn Labour electorate committee: to Greg and Jan Presland, Clare Hargraves, Raema Ingles, James Armstrong, Eanna Doyle, and Val Graham; Kirsten H and what’s-his-name, Don and Noreen Clark—[Interruption]—there is a reason for that—Val and Don Rogerson, Bruce and Trixie Harvey, David and Liz Craig, Dorothy and Alan McGray, Nissanka Kumarawansa, Ami and the late Savitri Chand, Susan Zhu, Vanessa King, Kaye Jones, Martin and Laurice Holland, and to my excellent intended successor for New Lynn, Dr Deborah Russell, and to the Socialist Speechwriter, thank you all.

To Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Jonathan Hunt, Perry Keenan, Sir Bob and Lady Harvey, Richard and Jackie Randerson, Rick Boven, Richard Zeckhauser, and Nitin Nohria: thank you all for your patience and guidance over the years. Thank you to the press gallery and the media for the important role that you continue to play. To all the parliamentary staff who keep us fed, watered, and safe: we could not do it—New Zealand could not do it—without you.

Finally, to my family, who have given the most over so many years, and especially to my two sons, William and Cameron, who are here today: I am so very proud of you guys. I love you very much, and I am looking forward to spending more time with you when I get home. You guys face a world that is more complex and more challenging than that inherited by those baby boomers, and us Gen-Xers, sitting in Parliament today. While our world is changing in fundamental ways, the values that guide us should not, because they are, ultimately, what make politics worth doing, not the rollercoaster of media attention or the greasy pole of competition. This is, ultimately, a service job, and that is what, for me at least, has made it such a privilege to be part of.

To all sides—all sides—of this special House and all who serve it, I wish you all well. I look forward now to just being a voter and a constituent from now on. Haere rā. [Applause]


Leave a comment


  1. patupaiarehe

     /  13th April 2017

    Well said David. Well said…

    In New Zealand, inequality is actually holding us back. It is crippling our ability to do well as a country. The poor are getting poorer, the middle is working harder just to stand still.

  2. Bill Brown

     /  13th April 2017


  3. Blazer

     /  13th April 2017

    I underrated this guy…NZ politics is poorer for his departure.Lynton did it again…with the leaders debate…the trusts Q. ..very disappointed…I bought the ‘I have his measure’..vale.

  4. Brown

     /  14th April 2017

    Using the term one of the better reveals how useless they are.


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