What next, minister? New Zealand's Got Talent
You might well think Steven Joyce and stand-up comedy would
be mutually exclusive items. But you would be wrong.
The man who fills the No4 slot in National's hierarchy has
many roles - Cabinet minister; National's election campaign
director; the party's go-to man when there is a major problem
to be fixed ; and, the senior National MP designated with the
task of picking holes in Labour and Green policies while they
are still hot off the press.
To that list, now add court jester. Mr Joyce took the first
call in Wednesday afternoon's general debate - long a
platform for Parliament's better orators - to parody Labour's
under-the-weather David Cunliffe in a fashion which was as
clever as it was cruel as it was funny.
Within the space of a five-minute speech, Mr Joyce had
revealed another weapon in his armoury - the ability to cut
an opponent down by sheer wit - and thereby further enhanced
his credentials as the frontrunner for National's leadership
when Mr Key finally moves on.
There was, however, another interesting outcome from his
contribution - its impact on those sitting opposite him.
Mr Cunliffe was not in the chamber. But those Labour MPs who
were initially tried to ignore what was a virtuoso
performance. But their barely-suppressed smiles gave the game
If any group of people could do with a enjoying a bit of a
laugh it is Mr Cunliffe's colleagues.
They have watched in increasing despair and horror as their
leader of just 10 months has virtually self-destructed and
taken the party's support down with him from the mid-30s to
the mid-20s in percentage terms.
Mr Cunliffe is now very much marooned in a malaise from which
it is almost impossible for a Leader of the Opposition to
drag himself or herself.
You can do nothing right. Every opinion poll just brings even
more bad news. No-one takes you seriously. You become the
target of every cheap joke and jibe. The media spit on what
remains of your dignity. The public write you off.
In short, you are deemed to be terminal. You then wait for
the firing squad - the knock on the door from a delegation of
your MPs who have determined your use-by date has long passed
and your ability to resuscitate your party's flagging support
is seen as likely as a squadron of pigs gliding past the
Fortunately for Mr Cunliffe, Labour is also now closer to
election day than it was in 1990 when Mike Moore deposed Sir
Geoffrey Palmer in a questionable coup which had the sole
purpose of saving the party from being completely routed by
Mr Cunliffe might take some small consolation from the fact
that the one Labour leader who somehow managed a Houdini-like
escape from the similar vortex currently battering him was
his mentor, Helen Clark.
She did so by staring down her parliamentary colleagues -
something Mr Cunliffe can likewise do by virtue of his power
base in the wider party and trade union affiliates.
Miss Clark's reviving of her leadership could be put down to
her success in the televised leaders' debates during the 1996
election which highlighted to a wider population her
Miss Clark was also up against an unpopular Jim Bolger. In
the 2014 version, Mr Cunliffe will be up against the most
formidable and popular National Party leader since Sir Robert
Muldoon was at the height of his powers in the 1970s.
Like Ms Clark, Mr Cunliffe will have to cope with the
''worm'' tracking his responses in the debates. Even a hint
of arrogance, superiority or being too clever by half will
see the worm in punishing mood.
Mr Cunliffe will have one advantage going into the debates.
He will be the underdog. He is also a far sharper and more
powerful a debater than was the one-dimensional Phil Goff in
But then neither Labour leader has ever really got the better
of Mr Key when going head-to-head in that other verbal boxing
ring - ministerial question-time in Parliament.
Mr Cunliffe's cause has not been helped by Labour whingeing
over TVNZ choosing Mike Hosking - someone Labour sees as
biased in National's favour - to be the moderator for the
Hosking is a thorough professional. He hardly needs reminding
that his performance will be scrutinised intently. Any bias
will be blatantly obvious. Which is why there will not be any
It is asking an awful lot of the leaders' debates to provide
the kind of miracle Mr Cunliffe needs to pull himself, his
leadership and his party out of the Slough of Despond. And it
has to happen well before then. Labour's strategists see part
of the answer in trying to lift Mr Cunliffe above the normal
fray and have him focus on Labour's core bread-and-butter
issues and accompanying policy - and leave the daily
flare-ups and relative trivia for colleagues to handle.
Both Labour and the Greens are acutely aware that it would
suit National just fine for the four-week formal election
campaign to be filled with constant distractions and
sideshows. It takes something like the ''Corngate'' affair
which was sprung on Labour from the outside and resulted in
genetic engineering dominating the 2002 campaign.
Leaked material relating to security matters and said to
detail New Zealand's real view of its South Pacific
neighbours is the pick for this election campaign. And, of
course, there is Kim Dotcom's promise to reveal all about
what Mr Key knew of him before the date that Mr Key says he
knew of the internet tycoon.
None of that is terribly helpful to Mr Cunliffe. As the
leader of one of the two major parties, he is guaranteed
profile throughout the campaign, But he must make something
of it. As things stand now, Labour's poll rating is
dangerously close to making the centre-left irrelevant to the
result of the election.
Mr Cunliffe somehow has to make himself relevant - even if
the centre-left still ends up falling short of being able to
govern. Being irrelevant would be the final ignominy. And
likely pull the final curtain down on his tenure.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political