Brian Edwards Media

Polonius (behind the arras) offers some free advice to David Cunliffe

Hamlet Kills Polonius

I recall a meeting in the Leader of the Opposition’s office some time in 1999. Present were Helen Clark, Heather Simpson, Mike Munro, Michael Hirschfeld (then President of the Labour Party), Judy Callingham, Brian Edwards and possibly some others. Among the topics for debate was whether Labour should enter into a coalition agreement with Jim Anderton’s Alliance Party. The view of those in favour prevailed.

Under MMP, Labour won the election taking 49 seats in parliament, while the Alliance took ten. Fears that the Alliance’s more left-wing policies would damage Labour were proved to be unfounded.

In 2014, Labour Leader David Cunliffe has declined Russel Norman’s invitation  to enter into a pre-election coalition agreement with the Green Party, while conceding that, should Labour win the election, an unspecified number of senior Green Party MPs could expect to be part of his Cabinet.

Though it can be defended – a la Winston – as an appropriate reluctance to enter into coalition agreements before the votes have been counted, it’s hard to see Cunliffe’s rejection of the Green’s marriage, or at least ‘engagement’ proposal, as anything other than a snub. At the very least, the Labour leader is making it perfectly clear to Norman/Turei just who will be running the show, should National lose the election.

The thinking behind this is probably that too close an association with the Greens is as likely to damage Labour’s chances of winning the election as it is of enhancing those chances. Too many people see the Greens as flakes.

This is essentially a rerun of the arguments against too close an association between Labour and the Alliance in 1999. But Labour won that election in a landslide.

And there’s a major difference between the Alliance then and the Greens today.  The Alliance would  survive for only three years in Parliament. The Greens are today a major political force, currently with 14 seats in Parliament. And, under the Norman/Turei leadership, they have largely lost their image as environmental flakes.

In my submission, far from weakening Labour’s electoral chances, a formal pre-election coalition agreement with the Greens would have created a strong centre-left force, a blend of pragmatism and idealism, clearly differentiated from National  and with wide electoral appeal. And strength in numbers.

Cunliffe’s rejection of the Greens’ pre-election engagement proposal has merely served to bolster the public view of a divided left, incapable of getting its act together, let alone running the country.

I’m not sure if he consulted Helen on this, but I very much doubt that she would have recommended snubbing your future coalition partner five  months out from an election when the latest political poll has you on 9% as preferred Prime Minister against John Key on 42.6% and your party on 31.2%  against National’s 45.9%.

Were I David Cunliffe’s chief political strategist, which I am not, I might have recommended Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes:

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

It’s not a particularly good analogy. In the play, Hamlet stabs Polonius who is hiding behind the arras. Political strategists rarely get their just deserts.

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  1. Brian, nothing like a devils advocate to get the grist really milling. Putting it simply the Alliance bombed out and Labour forged on. Why should Labour, now, be so accommodating to any prodigal son.

  2. Labour, unfortunately, is down the dunny. Looks like a Helen hat-trick for John Key coming up. Labour, with its shunning of the Greens, is an idiot signifying nothing, without even the sound and fury.

    • Labour is not down the dunny….its further down the road. The likes of you need to get on your bike and catch up!!

      • Well, Kat at least you are demonstrating Polonius’ advice to Laertes,

        “This above all: to thine own self be true,
        And it must follow, as the night the day,
        Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

        Mind you, Cunliffe and Labour have a hard road to hoe, especially as their opposition has brought the national budget into surplus, for which they will receive the following accolade:

        “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
        For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
        And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

      • Down the road to oblivion indeed

  3. Hi Brian, Polonius gave that advice to his son, Laertes, not Hamlet. Hamlet killed Polonious thinking he was someone else. Laertes killedHamlet. Hamlet killed Laertes. Not sure what that does to your analogy.

    • Quite right. And thank you for the correction. Don’t think it changes the thrust of the post very much. Still best to keep your friends close (and your enemies closer). And in politics, as in Hamlet, most of the players come to a sticky end.

  4. First, what a fine and brilliant man was Michael Hirschfeld. I first met, and worked with, him in 1996 when he brought me in to advise on post-election negotiating tactics with NZ First (and I don’t mean he was brilliant because he hired me, lest it’s read as implied).

    At a time when it seemed like everything was negotiable, it was he who calmly pointed out that some prices were too high, even if it meant opposition over government. I wonder if either major party leader has someone giving them similar counsel now… on the face of it, it would seem not.

    On the broader topic, when Winston first told me that the same stance he adopts today would be NZ First policy – no deals till after the voters had spoken – it struck me as a principled stance.

    Let the cards fall where they may, based on voters’ choice of which party to support, and then take our ten Founding Principles to the negotiating table and aim to win the implementation of as many as we could. Obviously the policy detail would require give-and-take, but party’s raison d’etre was inviolable. If we couldn’t make progress toward all ten fundamentals then at least we would repudiate any party which wanted to take us in the other direction.

    But the reality has consistently failed to live up to that noble – and I suppose I must now admit, naive – concept. Snouts meet trough, and a few policy concessions here and there are merely the justification for settling behind the big Ministerial desk and thumbing through the well-worn atlas planning your first “fact finding” trip. And no one knows what will be traded away until after it’s gone.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying I’ve come round to your way of thinking, Brian. Because it may, paradoxically, give voters a means to demand greater transparency. Parties could negotiate the broad brushstrokes of their coalition agreements before the election.

    Because, for instance, if Labour is willing to accept X, Y and Z of Greens policy, surely it shouldn’t matter whether the Greens have them over a barrel post election, should it? Because if it does, then what it says is that Labour believes X, Y and Z are actually very bad ideas indeed, but are willing to adopt them to achieve power.

    • You are quite right about Michael who was not only my close friend for many years, but was best man at my wedding to Judy. A wonderfully generous person and a ruthless ping pong player.

      • 4.1.1

        You make it sound as if when ‘the ‘cards fall where they may’ is an innocent activity taking place in some apolitical void. Surely every time pre election msuings are voiced and reported, the players reconfigure their hand.

        We are an extraordinary subtle electorate and my guess is this time we will be no different.

        • I don’t share your opinion of the electorate, Jeremy. It’s easy for those of us who follow politics to assume that our fellow citizens – while they may not be as nerdish – take the discharge of their obligations sufficiently seriously to at least understand the system under which we operate. A system many probably voted for when it was introduced and voted to retain, unchanged, more recently.

          But have a look back over Electoral Commission surveys on understanding of MMP (

          The proportion of people who understood their party vote was the crucial one on selecting who governed peaked at 79% in 2003. It’s now at 52%.

          Barely half of those who are qualified to vote even understand what it is they are doing.

          It’s an extraordinary electorate, but “subtle” isn’t the word I’d use to describe it.

          To imagine that these people are weighing up multiple variables – from Winston to Dotcom to Labour’s repudiation of the Greens – and adjusting their voting intentions is, I feel (and with all due respect) naive.


            I certainly endorse your view of a lack of understanding not only of MMP but of our constitution at large, Rex. In the nine years I worked for Jim Anderton when he was a Minister there was an almost continuous flow of letters through our office along the lines of ‘why don’t youse politicians stop squabbling and get on with running the country.’ This shows a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of Question Time which also extends to most political journalists who see it only as an opportunity to compete to see who can report the most dramatic gladatorial contest of the day (which is not its purpose at all). New Zealand is the only country in the OECD which does not have a basic civics course in our core school curriculum explaining how our democracy works. We are also one of only three members of the UN who do not have a written constitution (the other two are the UK and Israel, both for fairly obvious reasons)thus doubling the need for some sort of explanation of what people are doing before we let them loose in the world with the vote. This is even more ironic when you consider that we are the world’s first democracy dating from 1893 when we enfranchised all adults



              I’m not sure the average American, for example, would be able to explain their Congress is bicamerial, let alone how the number of seats are determined in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with executive powers vested in the President, and a separate judiciary.

              However, they do seem to know it is a “constitutional right” to own hand guns, so I could be wrong!

              And as far as “the purpose of Question Time which also extends to most political journalists who see it only as an opportunity to compete to see who can report the most dramatic gladatorial contest of the day”

              Um, no matter what valid constitutional purpose it serves, it is MOST certainly as you have described it. Or at least those who ask the questions, some important, and some inane and peurile, treat it that way.


              But I hasten to add your suggestion we need a “basic civics course in our core school curriculum explaining how our democracy works” is entirely valid.

  5. 5

    Brian, you’ve started referring to yourself in the third person. That is an early, dangerous sign of megalomania. It’s time to seek treatment before symptoms progress to the majestic plural.

    • You would do well to remember, Loveridge, that that is the sort of observation for which we could have you killed.

      • Continuing the Shakesperean theme,

        “And this man is now become a god, and Cassius is
        A wretched creature and must bend his body
        If Caesar carelessly but nod on him”.

        …isn’t speaking in the third person the sort of thing for which they could have “we” killed?

      • 5.1.2

        Empty threats do not scare us, Dr Edwards.

  6. I can see Labour concerned that too many wavering voters going to the Greens will split the Left vote and damage Labour chances. Good strategy to my mind to distance themselves, as after the election they will quickly be back together.

    • Could be. But after this snub the Greens may not be quite so keen. Read John Armstrong in today’s Herald. The other theory is that Cunliffe is cosying up to Winston. Given Winston’s racist views on immigration, I would have thought most principled Labour Party supporters would be handing in their membership cards in that eventuality. If I were a member, I certainly would. (I’m not.)

  7. I don’t know why everyone’s fond of quoting Shakespeare when the Labour Party/Cunliffe scenario should be referenced by a ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ comic opera.

    • Memorable, clever, charming, highly entertaining and with a huge and loyal following?

      • Not quite. More along the lines of:

        “… a unique topsy-turvy style in which humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences. The operas have also influenced political discourse, literature, film and television and have been widely parodied and pastiched by humorists”.

        Labour is a basket case, already. How does it serve Cunliffe, to shout that out from the rooftops, by undermining Labour’s branding with a formal alliance with the Greens?

        Cunliffe would rather the Greens be – tacitly – grateful to Labour as opposed to publicly ingratiating themselves to avowed head-in-the-cloud left-wingers, which can only cost them the support of the wavering supporters.

  8. I sincerely hope Labour reveal their strategy sooner rather than later, or the smiling assassin will carry on with his tax cuts for the 1% and his child poverty own goals…. Relatedly, in film making & screenwriting if you cannot state your intent in one sentence (the by-line) then your motives are not clear to yourself & therefore will never be clear to anyone else…. I keep thinking back to Obama & his YES WE CAN phrase. Where is the phrase that sums up what the Labour Party aspire to do?

    • Slogan: NO TINKER WE TAILOR…….

      Actual Labour Policy:
      1.Capital gains tax to move from speculation to innovation.
      2.Universal KiwiSaver to grow our onshore investment capital.
      3.Monetary policy reform to back our exporters.
      4.R&D tax credits to encourage innovation.
      5.A series of industry and regional strategies that grow New Zealand’s wealth.

      • Kat, in 2014 that is not a phrase, it is an encyclopedia.

        And it certainly isn’t, “It’s time for a change”. or “New Zealand the way YOU want it”.

      • Um, thinking about that mix (economic development in which everyone shares), how about

        “Everyone Advance!”

        Or are the military overtones something some of the more liberal factions on modern Labour would be uncomfortable with?

  9. You used the wrong Hamlet, BE. Labour and the Greens are closer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Stoppard version.

  10. You make a good argument, Caesa…I mean, Dr Edwards.

    However, I think that under MMP, where every vote counts, it is political suicide for any party to campaign in coalition unless they are tiddlers like Mana and the Internet Party, or as the parties of the Alliance did before them.

    Elections, especially under MMP are about establishing and differentiating your brand. If Labour and the Greens REALLY have that much in common then they should permanently merge. As Labour have a history stretching back to 1916, and the Greens have a distinct ecological ideology that does not seem likely or desireable.

    But Norman was playing a very clever game. Ideally Cunliffe would like a result like Clark had in her three election wins – options to the left and right with whom to form a Government. Three times she effectively threw the Greens under the bus. THAT is what Norman is trying to avoid. Whereas Labour would gain very little. Kat’s instincts are right. And if Cunliffe has no option other than the Greens? He has lost nothing, and everyone always knew it was his most likely coalition partner.

    The key to winning elections is the contest in the middle ground between Labour and National. Everything else is apportioning the pieces on either side of the divide. Brash’s “near-loss” in 2005 was nothing of the sort. All he did was hoover up votes at the expense of Act, NZ First, and United Future (the latter two could swing either way, and had benefitted by the unusual splintering of National’s vote in 2002). The dividing line between left and right stayed exactly where it had been in 2002. I’m sure markus will be along shortly to disabuse my analysis as nonsense, but nontheless, something like that is shaping Cunliffe’s strategy IMHO.

    By staying separate from the Greens until after the election Labour differentiates itself from both the Greens – and National, who are the real party they need to take votes off. That leaves the Greens free to pick them up on the left. THAT is the situation Clark and her war council saw correctly in 1999. Everyone knew who her potential partners were, and that she would not let the tail wag the dog – whoever it was. Cunliffe is banking on the same thing…

    • Laila Harré summed it up very succinctly on Q&A today. Putting the mind games aside Cunliffe has to play to win, which he will if he puts forward the Labour led scenario. There will be Green ministers in a Labour led govt.

      The old dog Prebble could only rant about house prices dropping and the greedy ‘middle’ voters not being happy. Well Dick, may they tear their hearts out.

      • Yep.

        Trying to pin the “extremist” tag onto the major Party courtesy of their potential coalition partners works both ways. Or at least it used to until ACT imploded!

        Mind you, I seem to recall a bit of sabre rattling over on your side of the divide, Kat, concerning Colin Craig…

        Is it just me, or is this continual attempt by the press to pin politicians down about “who will you go into coalition with” just a load of soap opera. The general contours are obvious, and certain parties will NEVER work together in formal coalition or give confidence and supply. e.g., National and Labour, National and the Greens, National and Mana, Labour and ACT. The rest is the voters choice, and whoever gets the most votes in comparison to the others has the stronger hand. While I respect tony simpson’s experience, expertise and insight, I think MOST electors understand that, even if they don’t know how the (relatively complex) MMP system works in detail!

        Also, while I respect Rex Widerstrom’s experience, expertise and insight, but to complain that MMP results in,

        “Snouts meet trough, and a few policy concessions here and there are merely the justification for settling behind the big Ministerial desk and thumbing through the well-worn atlas planning your first “fact finding” trip. And no one knows what will be traded away until after it’s gone”

        …is a bit late. Politicians are politicians and will ALWAYS act as such, NO matter WHAT system you use to vote them in. We were warned of this in 1993. Remember Peter Shirtcliffe? We also had enough experience of seeing it in practice when we had the referendum in 2011.

        Having said that, after the debacle of 1996 and the three years following, I think both Helen Clark and John Key have made a good job of making the system work as well as it realistically ever could. Mind you, minor coaliton partners do still tend to get punished in the following election, one suspects because they are viewed as “sell-outs”. But then I’m of the opinion that unless you vote Labour or National, you are, as in the days of FPP, essentially a “protest” or “ideology” voter. And protest and ideology voters, of their very nature can never be satisfied with the pragmatic results that the two major parties have to wrestle with.

        • Never say never Kimbo. Back in 1994 in the Netherlands, the equivalent parties of Labour (PvdA) and National (VVD), found they had more things in common than dividing them and formed the first “purple” coalition, which lasted for 8 years. Since 2012, The Netherlands has another “purple” government. Here in NZ, Labour and National are both so close to the centre, that it makes you wonder if with some give and take during coalition negotiations, they couldn’t govern together………

          • Yeah, fair enough.

            I’m sure marcus, the resident political science expert can confirm, but that is what happened back in the late 1920s/early 1930s when United and Reformed went into coalition, and then became the National Party after the 1935 election. Obviously the emergence of Labour was sufficient to drive professional and middle class urban liberals and rural conservatives together. More reflective of a social shift happening in the country at the time.

            However, I don’t think that applies now. Also I don’t think it would be in the country’s interests for Labour and National to unite in coalition now or in the foreseeable future. As tony simpon implied, despite MMP allowing some scope for consensus, our parliamentary system, like our court system is primarily adversarial in nature. I think other than in times of crisis (war, depression) it is always necessary to have a clear and distinct Opposition.

            For example, I understand that in India political development was stunted by the Congress Party being the group that most people joined, irrespective of policy or philosophy.

          • unless the Greens REALLY are the definers of a new emerging paradigm, just as the first Labour Government were for the 50 years after 1935.

            The Greens certainly claim it is so. Let’s see how their vote holds up if, and almost inevitably when they get a shot in government within the next few electoral cycles. The realities of responsibility soon shakes loose the dreamers!

  11. I am becoming very disappointed with Labour.

    I was not a Cunliffe fan but, after he took over the leadership, I became impressed with him. He was articulate, energised, positive, enthusiastic. Yes, maybe Labour is in with a chance.

    My motivation for wanting Labour to be in with a chance is most probably no different to anyone elses. I want a change of Government. I cannot stand John Key, but more importantly I don’t trust him and I find him arrogant. I think he’s sucked a lot of people (voters) in with his on-going smile-for-the-camera PR – “he’s such a nice man, I’ll vote for him” I hear them say. I simply cannot see why he remains at the top of the pops.

    Well, unless Cunliffe can return to his earlier leadership qualities he demonstrated a few months back, we are going to have another term of the “nice smiley man”. To hold the Greens hands openly and plainly is an opportunity missed. Surely Labour can see that the Greens hold some of the values that party once held dear but have now lost. A visibly cohesive and open holding of hands between the two complementary groups would surely have great appeal amongst those voters who, like me, want a change of Government.

    John Stokes

  12. The other major difference between the Alliance in 1999 And the Greens now is that the Alliance was lead by Jim Anderton who had the principle to resign from the Labour Party after it lost its soul. Judging from the number of Labour MPs hanging around like a bad smell from that era the party has not yet recovered it soul.

    In 1999 Anderton would have been perceived as ‘mainstream’ Labour and capable of keeping the fruit loops in his party under control. It was because
    Anderton kept control that the Alliance disintegrated and the fruit loops ended up in the Greens.

    You may consider the Greens to be centre left but most of the electorate would consider them to be far left. In both economic and environmental matters they are as ‘flaky’ as ever although they do a good job of concealing it since even Normans/Turei have enough brains to realise that it would be electoral suicide for the left to reveal the extent of their flakiness.

    The Labour Party may well have to deal with the Greens post election but until then they should follow Cunliffe,s strategy of keeping a clear separation and building the Labour identity and vote not that I see much hope of that. As I think Chris Trotter has suggested Labour has to capture the centre and it cannot do that shackled to Norman and Turei.

    If the Greens do form part of a future government the best solution I have heard is for Norman to be Deputy PM. He can then be like the USA veep; irrelevant and kept where he can do the least damage.

  13. In essence, the Greens couldn’t sell a raft to a drowning man. That drowning man is the dreamer, Cunliffe. Should Key lose the next election – having achieved all he said he could – I’ll be seeking solace in Europe for the duration. Labour and Greens? A marriage made in hell. Follow me – I’m lost.

    • Zinc, you need to understand the new politics under MMP. Two different parties can work together in a “give and take” arrangement as demonstrated many times in the past.
      Cunliffe has made a smart move not to align Labour with the Greens before the election. Tactically, inorder to avoid the Nats continued labelling, that a Labour-Green coalition calls for a move to the extreme left. Also, there is more scope for Labour to select proposed mining sites, to increase employment. Labour is able to place in front of the voter its own policies unchecked, without the comparison of “how will that suit the Greens”???

      Many countries in Europe are worse off than New Zealand when it comes to political party cooperation.

  14. I have been a labour voter all my life until now. I am over them.
    A coalition with the Greens would have been the most sensible thing to do but no they are playing games now, keep the Greens at a distance so they can grab a few more votes from the “Greens are flaky” group , don’t distance Winstone too much incase he gets serious votes. These are the games of a party wanting to get full power at any cost. Its old school FPP thinking on top of some pretty old school policies as well.

    I still remember the shock when Helen Clarke went with Winstone rather than the greens , mainly because she could throw him a few policy concessions ( the gold card) and a lot more baubles.
    Where are the ideals?
    I don’t trust Labour anymore.

    You are right Brian this just adds to the perception that Labour are divided “incapable of getting its act together, let alone running the country.”
    They already have Shane Jones running his own campaign – the word is he’s angling for a big job outside parliament, ie more self interest.

    In my opinion Labour have lost their way, perhaps forever. The old Left/Right divide is no longer useful , the world is way more nuanced and we need a damn site more from our political leaders than power games.

  15. Despite Cunliffe’s decline of Norman’s offer ,Norman handled the situation with great aplomb.Anyone who writes the Greens off as flaky,should think again.

  16. Good point pjr , I am getting irritated with the flaky greens message put about – in the main – by the Nats. It has very little foundation.