Brian Edwards Media

Some acting experience an advantage but not required.


If David Cunliffe were an actor, his preferred acting style might best be described as Shakespearean – declamatory, expansive, grand in tone and gesture, rich in soliloquy.

It is a style suited to the stage but unfortunately totally unsuited to the more intimate vehicle of television and in particular to the television interview or debate in which small groups of people in their living rooms at home eavesdrop on an equally small group of people in a studio talking and debating.

Cunliffe’s failure, and the failure of his advisors to draw this distinction between what is appropriate to the stage and what is appropriate to television was in my view a significant factor in Labour’s defeat. He was too big, too loud, too OTT. You could see that he was acting.   

The best and worst example of this was the final television debate chaired by Mike Hosking. One ought not to dignify the 22 programme minutes which TVNZ devoted to this last opportunity for viewers to judge who should run the country for the next three years by calling it ‘a debate’ at all, but it did serve to illustrate the Cunliffe team’s lack of understanding of what will appeal to the television viewer. The Labour leader was aggressive, loud, interruptive and constantly talked over the Prime Minister. Then, to add insult to injury, he repeatedly told the much quieter and considerably less interruptive Key, ‘You’ve had your go, John. It’s my turn now!’ Hosking, no slouch in the interviewer’s chair, could not control him. ‘David, you’re interrupting too much,’ he observed on one occasion. And on another, ‘You’re shouting at me.’

I can imagine that the Cunliffe camp – along with several political commentators –  scored the debate a raging success for the Leader of the Opposition. ‘Great stuff, David. You really stuck it to him!’ Voters clearly thought otherwise.

Perhaps the most widespread criticism you hear of David Cunliffe is that he doesn’t seem sincere, that the things he says seem to lack spontaneity, to sound rehearsed, scripted, to be part of a performance. It’s not just that the Labour Leader’s acting is over the top; it’s that he should be acting at all.

I think there’s some truth to this, to the ‘but’ that lies at the back of so many people’s minds, the ill-defined but nagging doubt as to whether this is a man you can trust or someone you can afford to like. I hear this all the time. On the street. At parties. In discussion with friends. Ask them for the evidence to support their conclusion and you rarely get a clear answer. It’s just an impression, a perception, a feeling. But it may account in part for Labour’s dismal showing in the election. And it may be enough to prevent David Cunliffe ever becoming Prime Minister.

I saw a different David Cunliffe late on the night before the election. He was on The Paul Henry Show. It was apparently ‘Talk like a Pirate Day’ and Henry said Cunliffe  had to talk like a pirate during the interview. What followed was not just funny but delightful – two silly kids having a lovely time being pretend pirates talking about politics.

What had made the difference? Well, Cunliffe was exhausted and I suspect  the  actor in him had gone to bed. His guard was down. And I thought this out-of-control, giggling man, talking like Long John Silver and collapsing in gales of laughter, was the nicest and least disingenuous person you could imagine.

Will we see that Cunliffe again? I doubt it. When he’s making a speech or when the red light is on, the actor will return. It’s a reflex and reflexes are the hardest thing to shift. Pity! I really liked the pirate.

And everything that Cunliffe appears not to be, Key appears to be: affable, at ease, comfortable in his own skin, unpretentious, straightforward, straight. And yes, ‘the sort of guy you’d be happy to have a beer with’.

There’s an irony here of course. It’s got to do with ‘the common touch’. Former Wall Street forex dealer, multi-millionaire businessman and leader of the right-wing New Zealand National Party, John Key, has it. David Cunliffe, far-left Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, doesn’t. Go figure.

Figuring on Q & A yesterday morning just what accounted for Saturday’s rout of the Labour Party, a high-powered panel of political commentators debated whether David Cunliffe was personally responsible for that rout. Most thought not. Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton was the dissenting voice. David Cunliffe, he said, was the prime, if not the sole cause of Labour’s defeat.

It occurred to me that this eminent Q & A panel was sorely out of touch with the fact that we live in the age of presidential-style election campaigns. If the voters like one leader and do not like his or her opponent, the liked leader’s party will benefit and the disliked leader’s party will do less well. If the difference in perceived likeability is significant or extreme, that may itself be a significant and perhaps the most significant factor in the result. More significant certainly than the objective merits of the candidates or their parties’ platforms. That’s showbiz folks! Hooton was right.

It may also be the case that the Labour Party is in dire need of reform, but if that reform does not include the selection of a charismatic, popular and widely admired Leader, John Key can look forward to a fourth term as Prime Minister.

Some acting experience an advantage, but not required.

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  1. Very thoughtful analysis

    • Fer crying out loud. What about the policies???

      • It seemed to me that the PM continually referred to the left as not talking policies, though it was extremely evident that they were, and that it was he who gave nothing away. One media commentator the night of the elections seemed to have a sudden burst of awareness, when he concluded mostly to himself, ” We don’t know what they are planning to do.” Did anyone else hear that?

  2. I hadn’t intended to do anything more on this mini-post than congratulate David and Karen. But I’ve decided to stick my neck out and make a prediction. I predict that a Labour/Greens coalition will win the 2014 election and that David Cunliffe will be New Zealand’s next Prime Minister. Labour might even go it alone.
    Under Cunliffe’s leadership, his and Labour’s poll rating will begin to rise, slowly but inexorably.

    Perhaps time to give up the predictions Brian.

    • The time to give up the predictions will surely be when they’re proved wrong. Perhaps you can wait till then.

      • Surely this prediction has been proved wrong.

        But on another tack surely the best illustration of how a leader succeeds when he has nothing to say is Winston.
        How he manages to get 10 MPs elected [most of whom are total nonentities] just proves the old adage that you can fool some of the people all the time.
        In my opinion the most articulate and natural leader of any party is Russell Norman but a a Green voter I probably would say that.
        And the Green’s vote also declined.

    • 2014?*stickler*

  3. So, good work, or good fortune? How does one find charisma? Clearly Key was not a great off the cuff speaker when he started…
    And I deleted the Paul Henry show yesterday (was too tired to watch it live), now I may have to go track it down on the interweb.
    But, as John says, a very good analysis of this particular issue.

  4. I also watched him on The Paul Henry Show and thought the same thing. If he had shown this side of himself more, he had a good shot.

  5. I really liked the Paul Henry interview too – although Cunliffe was clearly exhausted, it was a ‘let down the guard’, relaxed little clip.

    Labour clearly needs to go right back to basics and look at everything, not matter how sacred or painful. They’ll be right, but they must do the work. More people didn’t vote for National than did, so there is the potential there.

    (And I can think of few people I’d less like to have a beer with than John Key – he reminds me of nothing so much as that sneaky little sod at school who was always stirring and manipulating others and full of bravado when surrounded by his gang, but never anywhere near when the teacher was holding people to account.)

    • 5.1

      I agree – As for genuine versus fake – every time I see or hear John Key I yell FAKE. Mr Key would have to be the biggest faker polly I have ever seen – all the brain fades and “I can’t recall” comments – people he worked with at Merrill Lynch say he had an excellent memory and never forgot a single detail – so who’s the actor?? I don’t agree with Brian at all – to me, David Cunliffe is a very genuine person, possbly just too good for the Labour Caucus to stomach!! I don’t want a larrikin for a Prime Minister – we’ve had 6 years of that already!

  6. I’m not convinced.100000 people not voting may be the deciding factor.Key may be the best con man we’ve seen.I see a wolf biding his time ,others see sheep.Time will hopefully reveal the realty behind Nationals success.The constant Roman empire games held whenever a leader seems vulnerable doesn’t help Labours appeal.
    Steven Franks opinion on the panel today suggested the hatred Labour has for dairy farmers etc and their inability to suggest positive change is at the core of their problems.
    Nice to see you back Brian and as always an interesting and informed opinion.

  7. I agree with you that charisma is innate and cannot be taught. As a sometime teacher of small children you can spot many a natural charmer at a very early age. And I can see the “wasn’t me, miss” type both in the classroom and in the beehive, sad to say.
    As for “presidential” type elections, did we not see Muldoon in that mode long before the advent of social media? Even in his cups he could command the television interview in a way that his opponents could not.

    • Yes, I knew Muldoon very well and, in his later years, got to like and admire him. He was really a Socialist at heart. I used to say that when he appeared in television interviews there was always ‘a sense of impending debacle’.

  8. I hate to say this, but what you have written was exactly (in my humble opinion!) the most important criticism of David Cunliffe during the primary/leadership process. He seems to believe that thing that Mike Moore used to say, that if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made. The trouble is he actually doesn’t fake it very well :)

    I’ve known David for years and he is super bright, and a really good person, real quality. But he’s not, and has never been, the right guy to lead the party. He just doesn’t have the people skills, the “naturalness” that the job requires, especially up against Key. The Party can’t afford to lose him as an MP though, he just needs to get the ambition under control.

    I hope this all works itself out peacefully though…

    Andrew Geddis refernces Claire, read on
    In which, stentorian tonal deafness bla bla :-{)

  10. Politics , nothing more than a beauty pageant! Very sad.

    • On the contrary, intelligence and charisma are not mutually exclusive. My critique of Cunliffe was not that he lacked charisma but that his presentation and delivery were over the top.

      • Yeah it’s not like David Lange was ever over the top. In fact he was frequently OTT yet Labour won two elections with Lange as PM! Simplistic again, Brian.

  11. where exactly will Labour get this charismatic leader from? Cunliffe is a year into the job and he now with greater confidence and battle harden he can settle down and play the role you suggest. He did well I thought. He handled all the crap thrown at him, managed to bring the labour party through a strident election process and is still standing at the end. Good on him especially leading a pack of some mongrels who show no loyalty to him. I am never ever voting Labour again until they sort out these factions. Either stay and show your loyalty or get and join the NATs. But I think Brian you are being too picky.

  12. Perhaps the “worm” was useful after all, if only as a guide to the leaders as to what worked and what didn’t. I’m very surprised, though, that Labour didn’t have a properly selected focus group watching the debate and indicating their response via some sort of electronics, so adjustments could be made for subsequent appearances.

    I can’t say I share your enthusiasm for having the leader of a major political party asked to adopt a silly voice on the eve of an election. If that show is to be a vehicle for the ego of its host (as its eponymous title certainly suggests it is) then drop the news bulletin, bring in a house band, and be done with it. Then when a political leader appears we’ll expect them to be made fools of, and we won’t tune in hoping that at the end we’ll be the slightest bit better informed.

    But if we’re going to have late night current affairs then for goodness sake let’s have it. It needn’t be deathly dull… off the top of my head I can think of “This Week” (BBC) with Andrew Neil. For those not familiar with it, here’s an entertaining grilling of a UK Labour leadership contender:

    • I never suggested that Cunliffe should ‘adopt a silly voice’ . Are you deliberately misunderstanding me? I was saying that it was lovely to see Cunliffe let his guard down and have some fun.

      • I actually said he was *asked* to adopt a silly voice, if we’re going to quibble over interpretation.

        I didn’t see the piece but from your description he agreed to do so, and became, in your words, “out-of-control, giggling man, talking like Long John Silver”. You then went on to say “I really liked the pirate”.

        Alright, you didn’t specifically say “…and he should do it more often”, but I’d submit that’s an interpretation that’s not unreasonable given your approbation of it. And in any case, I was making a more general reference to the wisdom of letting down one’s guard to such an extent on live national television.

        However my criticism was leveled more at the show than at Cunliffe. I was cutting him a break because he was no doubt exhausted at the end of a long and harrowing campaign, when the chance to let off steam would have seemed more than usually seductive.

        But I happen to think political leaders need to maintain a certain gravitas, even on late night TV. Once you’ve allowed yourself to be photographed in fishnets and heels, a la Alexander Downer, or giggling and putting on a pirate voice, then that’s what will be dredged up every time a profile piece is done on you.

        And I think that particular show – being the epitome of that awful genre “infotainment” – should be treated with particular caution by politicians unless and until it decides whether it’s “info” or “tainment”.

  13. I know Cunliffe’s team and he has some very smart advisers. His debate prep team, led by Rob Salmond, was absolutely top notch. What makes you think they didn’t offer him the advice you’ve outlined above?

    For what it’s worth, he won every popular poll on the debates and demolished Key on the Herald’s online reactor. I think you’re being hypercritical here Brian – the guy’s only been in the job a year for God’s sake.

    • How come this ‘top notch advice’ produced such a disastrous result?

      • Brian, how many years was Helen Clark Labour leader before she won an election? Yet you seem to think that DC should have won, or something, despite being in the job five minutes. True, another 3 years of DC as leader might not see Labour do any better, but changing leaders on a regular basis won’t achieve much either.

  14. Brian : full marks for being a straight shooter … Keep your predictions comming.

    My prediction is that the Labour Party is done and dusted until all the old cronies are put out to pasture and a completely new line up comes through with the likes of Peeni Henare … My pick is that he will be leader in six years and PM at the following election !!!

  15. Interesting – the Pirate thing that is – I missed it. Something about not being able to reach through the TV to punch Paul Henry…

  16. Many valid comments from several including you Brian…the most disturbing thing is that person running some of the debates was a dreadful example of bad media skills on channel Govt. At least Paul is up-front about most things – I miss some of the more fair media people who actually have some respect for a fair go. The debaters are to be expected to talk over each other occasionally but when the host is so blatantly nto even aware of his own performance. I would have preferred Basil Brush running the show. Consistent M Kamo, Dougal S amd T Bradley are names of of just a few fairer minded interviewers.

  17. In all honesty, the televised debates had very little on the voters as to furthering understanding and perception of either party policy and/or leadership persona. It was done and dusted, much earlier.

    Political acumen requires an appreciation as to the impact of what you say and do, and how it is received by the public. Cunliffe demonstrated none of that. Instead, he has cut a somewhat singularly ridiculous figure throughout his electioneering.

    Wearing that ubiquitous red scarf made him look like a softie — approximates the cartoon figure ‘Where’s Wally’– one who puts on gloves when the weather turns a little cold. Couple that with his advocacy for the gender quota (man-ban) and his watery “apologising for being a man”, and he really did come across as a metro sexual pansy. (I won’t mention his weak chin that’s evocative of Stephen Versalko).

    His sense of disconnect and delusion now extends to his not standing down after Labour’s crushing defeat. The party has been renounced-and trounced like never before, but Cunliffe
    remains in a blissful sense of denial.

  18. I don’t blame Labour, the Greens or Kim Dotcom. I blame all the people who voted for National, New Zealand First, the Conservatives, ACT and Peter Dunne.
    Sixty percent of the voters preferred a Prime Minister who lies. Says more about them than David Cunliffe or anyone else.
    Some will be hit with bad karma within a few months as they lose the the right to tea breaks at work. Won’t be spending any time empathising with them or Christchurch citizens complaining about the pace of the rebuild either, unless they state they voted for the Left first of all.
    Mostly sorry for the numerous species of animal and fish likely to go extinct within the next few years who were relying on New Zealand citizens to vote on their behalf. The myth of New Zealanders being fair minded and egalitarian can now be put safely to bed forever along with the mythological “kiwi bach” which went extinct a few decades ago.

    • David isn’t it good that your opinion is so much better than the 60% of voters that disagree with you. These people probably realise that a party that can not manage itself properly is not yet fit to manage our country. Smart people I would argue.

    • You lost….suck it up!

    • I agree totally. Sadly a large bunch of our citizens are uninformed, scared, impressionable sheep.

    • David

      Blaming the people that voted for the centre right is exactly what will keep you and your lefty mates out of power for years to come.

      Your arrogance in this regard is both breathtaking and stupid.

      But there you go; these traits are fairly typical of the left.

      You could try a little humility and try wearing a little of the blame yourself, as could cunliffe.

      You could even go out and listen to your fellow citizens and try and understand why they voted how they did. This would provide you with a little insight into what you and the left needs to do to win them to your side of the argument.

  19. Good points David .I agree.Lets not forget Crusher Collins who was unfortunate enough to be caught.

    • …and let’s not forget that since this ‘Black Ops’ business has worked so well for so long. Even after the scab of it was picked off by Hager, with the intention of applying both sunlight and disinfectant, so many voters have chosen to ignore it that it will now be seen as normal. It is not normal, and the PM is either in it up to his ears and lying about it, or (willfully) ignorant of what is happening in his government. Both smell really bad.

      Now watch the campaign to discredit Hager ramp up…

  20. I also enjoyed seeing “the real” David Cunliffe on the election eve joking with Paul Henry, but I have drawn a different conclusion about his suitability to remain leader. My thoughts were that if he had been leader for the last 3 years the public would have been able to see more of the real David Cunliffe and he would not have had to to try so hard to win the debates at all cost.

    I have never before seen such cruel and biased media denigration of a party leader than that served up to Cunliffe in the past 9 months. I suspect he has responded the only way he can.

    There are problems within the Labour Party communication and campaign teams that need to be resolved. Changing the leader again will not address these.

  21. Brian, you’re right on the money. Try as I might I couldn’t like Cunliffe. He seemed to be always saying what he thought you might like to hear. Consider the audience for the “sorry for being a man” comment. This acting must be exhausting for him. Key in contrast is what was once called a natural person. He consistently says what he thinks regardless of the audience. Combined with a genial temperament, this makes for a likeable believable countenance. This confidence and charm is God given and can’t be taught. And, in Key’s case, is underpinned by the strong and cohesive team behind him. Cunliffe in contrast stood and still stands on shifting sands. Sadly this decent man has to go. Just as importantly Labour needs to decide exactly what it stands for then knuckle down and implement. The left expends 90% of it’s energy debating and formulating and 10% implementing. Success mandates the inverse.

  22. Cunliffe is finished. He is basically an unattractive person as most of us are, but in this contest he was totally outclassed. The debates may be important in allowing you to score points off the opposition, but really it’s about looking in control under stress. Key had more stress applied in this election than I’ve seen in my lifetime. The debates were easy relatively. Pullitzer prize winners,
    Assange, GCSB, Crusher, Dirty Politics, bloody hell. And still Cunliffe couldn’t land a blow. Why? He really is a National middle order batsman in disguise. He’s in the wrong party. I had five years in Melbourne when the Silver Fox, Bob Hawke was coming through from the ACTU to lead Labour. While I think the unions are yesterdays solution, Hawke like Key made people comfortable to vote for him because he shows control. Wait Labour, The saviour will be here, but when.

  23. It’s pleasant to read a rational analysis together with rational responses. The general reaction of the left seems to be one of denial and ‘we woz robbed.’

  24. I totally disagree that John Key comes across as “affable, at ease, comfortable in his own skin, unpretentious, straightforward, straight. And yes, ‘the sort of guy you’d be happy to have a beer with’.” To me he comes across with an air of uncomfortable arrogance – he never seems to enjoy being where he is and can’t get away quick enough. I often feel nervous and embarrassed watching him.

    • Curious. I can think of few politicians who seem to enjoy the job so much.

      • I don’t know if it’s a female thing but I agree with Ali, John Key comes across as slimey to me.

        John Key plays the “there is nothing to worry about” role and the baby boomers just lap it up because they don’t want to deal with hassle and negativity at their time of life – they just want an easy, guilt-free retirement. And, by weight of numbers, the baby boomers are the demographic that decide the elections. It’s why young people don’t vote – they can’t outvote the baby boomers.

        And I looked below and Ross McComish pretty much sums it up.

        • I don’t think its a female thing because I don’t get a bad vibe from Key. I worked for the Parliamentary Labour Party for 13 years, had some time away and then worked there again with the Nats for 7 years and the difference between the two is absolute. The Labour Party is arrogant, nasty, vindictive and hypocritical; John Key on the other hand is the calm, reasoned and thoughtful person that appears on the television. I much preferred working under his leadership than in Labour.

      • I just don’t see it – he comes across as uncomfortable and cold to me.

  25. These days,it’s all about who comes across best on TV. Nothing to do with policies or who’s been caught out telling porkies.
    I didn’t watch the “debates”. I knew what the policies of the various parties were and which parties, in the past, had kept their promises so I voted accordingly. It’s a shame the majority of voters chose the most plausible rogue.
    O tempora! O mores!

  26. Labour’s troubles go beyond the musical chairs of inept and unpopular leaders, they choose; they are stuck in a rut fom the Helen Clark years. They can’t or don’t want to discard the suffocating shroud of their socialist interfering ways. The party needs a complete clean out.

    • “The suffocating shroud of their socialist interfering ways.” No what precisely were you thinking of? The ‘smoke free’ legislation, which didn’t prevent you from smoking except in places where other people had to inhale your smoke? Or the so-called ‘anti-smacking’ legislation which said you couldn’t hit your kids. Shocking, I agree.

      • 26.1.1

        In all fairness, then:
        The smoke-free law was Excellent.
        The paring down of that hideously expensive white elephant (aka RNZAF) was brave and Excellent.
        The scrapping of the titles in the honours list was Very Good.
        The anti-smacking law was Bad. Without being able to say so, we all know there was only ONE ethnic group that prompted this ridiculous piece of social engineering legislation, which tarred Everyone with the same brush.

        • Really? Which ethnic group is that? Have you had a look at the convictions under this legislation? Can you tell which ethnic groups they are all part of?

  27. Welcome back Brian. We missed your informed analysis in the lead up to the election. Where have you been for five months?

    • 27.1

      I second that. Even though I was always going to vote blue, I kept checking here for the analysis and comment I seek in order to maintain my own personal balance, to be constantly disappointed!

  28. Hey Guys (esses) listen up … please.

    “Forget the navel gazing over leaders, policies, party strengths and weaknesses, allegiances … ALL of it is irrelevant.

    Fact: The party that occupies the centre wins … OK?

    Ever seen a Bell Curve?”.

    • If it’s power at all costs then that’s OK but suppose you’ve got an idea which you think is better than those at the centre of the bell curve have? Surely it’s your duty to try to persuade others that you’re right – shift the bell curve. I know that’s an old-fashioned idea but there’s nothing wrong with it.
      Or perhaps you believe it’s ethical to get elected on one set of policies and then implement something completely different as Lange, Douglas et al. did.

      • 28.1.1

        Perhaps the way to persuade others to your point of view might be to not start out by telling them they are selfish, greedy, liars and that they have to see things your way?


          I’ve just reread my two posts and can’t find anything about “selfish, greedy liars” and telling them they have to see things my way.
          Are you feeling guilty?


            Sorry, John, I meant that as a general comment on the way the campaign was run – not directed at you personally. Perhaps I should have written “the way to persuade other’s to one’s point of view”.
            Not guilty, your honour.

  29. Cunliffe’s problem is not merely charisma but credibility. Not for nothing those who knew him best, his caucus, did not support him. And the public immediately picked up his habit of telling everyone what he thinks they want to hear or what he thinks will serve him best rather than whatever he really believes.

    Apart from that the self delusion of the Left is truly a wonder to behold. Plenty of examples in these comments.

  30. I also watched DC on the Paul Henry show and thought it was very refreshing and engaging. I had already voted so it didn’t change anything for me. I also watched the PM on John Campbell after the election and my immediate thought was “4th term”. And I’ve never voted for him, ever.

  31. I felt Labour had an opportunity with Shearer as leader, with a good back up person behind like Key has with English. Shearers quite a dignified sort of bloke and doesn’t come across as full of self importance and I found him believable and sincere whereas I haven’t found Cunliffe to be believable or sincere. I think Labour missed the bus with tossing Shearer aside. It’s funny in a sense but watching Q and A on Sunday morning there were a large number of us having a post election breakfast and when Shearer spoke (and we all voted National if the 25 persons present told the truth) the majority commented he would be a leader you could trust. Whether he would be or not is not the point – perception = votes.

  32. I can imagine that the Cunliffe camp – along with several political commentators – scored the debate a raging success for the Leader of the Opposition. ‘Great stuff, David. You really stuck it to him!’ Voters clearly thought otherwise.

    That is a rather simplistic analysis, Brian. I suspect voters might have decided not to vote Labour due to its proposed changes to superannuation, compulsory saving via KiwiSaver, the introduction of a capital gains tax, raising the minimum wage, etc etc. I think voters ask themselves “what’s in it for me?”ros