Today is D-Day for David Cunliffe. It is Debate Day.
The Labour leader must grab the opportunity provided by his
going head-to-head with the Prime Minister in the first
televised leaders' debate to breathe life back into Labour's
lacklustre and meandering election campaign.
Otherwise, it will already be all over with three weeks still
to go before election day.
The urgent need to revitalise Labour's campaign and get on
the offensive was underlined by last night's 3 News-Reid
Research poll. Slipping to just over 26 per cent support,
Labour failed to benefit from a small drop in backing for
National. The winners were New Zealand First and Colin
Craig's Conservatives who came close to clearing the 5 per
cent threshold for the first time.
Labour's campaign seems to be lacking in urgency. The party
is reactive, rather than proactive.
Labour deserves credit for the breadth and depth of its
policies. The party is to be applauded for detailing exactly
how those policies will be funded -- even if that exercise
was in part undertaken to avoid Cunliffe falling victim to
John "show us the money" Key who skewered then leader Phil
Goff over the cost of Labour's promises during the 2011
It is also to Labour's credit that it is prepared to promote
policies - such as introducing a capital gains tax and
raising the retirement age - which carry political risk, but
which the party believes are in the national interest.
But it seems that taking such risks - plus the party's recent
bouts of indiscipline - have resulted in the adoption of a
safety-first culture which is sucking the vitality and
spontaneity out of Labour's campaign. It is about as exciting
as a wet weekend in Westport.
Cunliffe can go a long way to changing perceptions of him and
Labour tonight. Helen Clark did exactly that during
equivalent debates in 1996 and never looked back.
Rather than the bombastic, lecturing figure that usually
fills their screens, voters need to witness the more subdued,
more relaxed, more empathetic and consequently more
impressive Cunliffe who appeared in Labour's 14-minute
election broadcast last Saturday night. It was a very
different Cunliffe - one voters may yet warm to.
Cunliffe does not have to win tonight to put a fire under
Labour's campaign. But he cannot afford to end up being rated
There is nothing like as much pressure on Key to perform. He
is the known quantity. The pressure is heaped on Cunliffe's
Tonight's debate will be the test of whether he can handle it
- as it should be.
- by John Armstrong