Opinion: National tries hard to paint Cunliffe as untrustworthy

In what is ominously but obviously fast becoming a year-long de facto election campaign, you can guarantee National will try and drum one particular message into voters' brains in coming months.

National will make big efforts to permanently typecast David Cunliffe as a politician who can't be trusted. Such a strategy would have been a complete waste of time were the mild-mannered David Shearer still Labour's leader.

It is equally unlikely to have gained much traction had it been applied to Phil Goff, someone who commanded respect, if not popularity. Voters, however, know little about Mr Cunliffe. They might have watched his brazen undermining of Mr Shearer's leadership at Labour's annual conference in 2012.

They might have heard his disingenuous-sounding denials that he was fermenting trouble. While Mr Cunliffe has a keen sense of humour, he is seen as someone people have difficulty warming to. National believes when it comes to trust, Mr Cunliffe still has much work to do. John Key set the ball rolling this week by labelling his Labour counterpart, as someone who was very ''tricky''. That was a softer word than ''untrustworthy''.

Deliberately so. Getting personal can easily backfire. National's modus operandi is to prod voters to draw the right conclusion themselves. In that respect, the past week has been one step forward and two back for Mr Cunliffe.

It has been his most harrowing week since becoming leader about five months ago. That verdict would deservedly be thrown out of court if Labour's Best Start package, which was unveiled last Monday, actually proves to be as popular as Labour MPs are already saying it is.

Until the polls show that to be the case, however, Mr Cunliffe is going to have to invest time in bridging what might be called the ''trust deficit''. Best Start is most notable for its promise of a $60 a week payment to families with newborn babies. The policy is Labour's strongest pitch yet that when it comes to tackling child poverty, it is far more committed than other political parties.

The near universal nature of the payment - recommended by no less a body than the Commissioner for Children's expert advisory group on child poverty - has enabled Labour to simultaneously offer financial relief to a broad swathe of middle-income voters without the party looking self-serving in doing so.

Something was missing, however, from the explanatory paperwork handed out to journalists covering the policy's launch in west Auckland. The material made no mention of the policy's stipulation that those qualifying for the $60 a week ''baby bonus'' would not get any money until their household's eligibility for paid parental leave had been exhausted.

Given Labour intends to expand paid parental leave from the current 14 weeks to 26 weeks, Mr Cunliffe's assertion in speech notes that ''all families eligible for Best Start would get the weekly $60 payment ''for the first year of their child's life'' didn't tell the whole story.

Mr Cunliffe subsequently blamed a speech-writer for the wording. And - to be fair - the policy and the conditions governing the varying amounts of cash to be paid to families during the the up to three years that their child might qualify for assistance was mostly spelled out in pretty good detail on Labour's website.

There was scant mention of Labour's intention to abolish the parental tax credit to help fund the new policy. That tax credit is worth up to $150 a week for some families and covers the first eight weeks of a baby's life.

That is equivalent to 20 weeks on Labour's new scheme. There is further evidence Labour's scheme is not as generous as it might appear at first glance. The first income-tested payment for 1-year-olds will not occur until April 2017.

Meanwhile, Labour has quietly canned its controversial 2011 policy to pay the $60-a-week in-work tax credit to beneficiaries. Labour has done itself no favours in failing to be totally upfront about its intentions. Reporters at the policy launch should have been able to rely on the information provided to them. They will be asking whether the absence of key facts was a genuine mistake or an accidental omission on Labour's part? Or were journalists deliberately kept in the dark by Labour in an attempt to up the chances of uncritical coverage of the baby bonus.

Buying a fight with the media is not the smartest way to kick-off election year. Baby bonus coverage shifted markedly as Mr Key ruthlessly and sarcastically picked up on and picked over Labour's less than open stance on paid parental leave and the abolition of the parental tax credit.

National's initial line was to accuse Labour of spending money from the proceeds if the economic recovery before the recovery has taken place. Mr Key then switched attention to the $150,000 income threshold for payment of the first year of the baby bonus, slamming it as ''Labour's definition of poverty''.

Labour retaliated by using the weeklong debate in Parliament on the prime minister's annual statement to paint a bleak picture of a country where the Government was ''arrogant, out of touch, and out for its mates''. Labour's rhetoric has noticeably toughened under Mr Cunliffe - and for one reason.

There seems top be no mood in the electorate for a change of Government.

Without such a mood, Labour - which anyway does not look ready to govern - and the Greens - who do have their act together - have to manufacture one. The trouble is the rhetoric simply does not wash. Enter Mr Key. He intends making things even harder for his opponents. Don't be fooled into thinking advocacy for a change of flag is some innocent diversion.

He is doing it on the back of a rapidly strengthening economy and healthier national confidence.

It is an opportunity to display leadership and make people feel good about themselves and the country. It is all about nationhood. It is all about patriotism. It is all about gathering more votes for National.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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