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David Cunliffe and the soulful zone: a 2007 profile by Steve Braunias

David Cunliffe has announced he is leaving politics. He was once the Rising Man; in October 2007, in the age before Key, Helen Clark promoted him as health minister. Steve Braunias profiled him for the Sunday Star-Times.

You could tell at once what was going to happen when an old couple approached newly promoted cabinet minister David Cunliffe on the main shopping street in Titirangi on Thursday afternoon. It was the day after Cunliffe was given the health portfolio, and his ranking rose to seventh in cabinet. New Zealanders are a fundamentally decent people; we excel at the slap on the back and the hip-hip-hooray; the couple were going to congratulate him, wish him all the best. It would be small, good moment in a politician’s life.

“Hello there,” said Cunliffe, a tall, trim fellow, 44, with short gingery hair and a boyish, rather pleading face. He was dressed in clothes bought from Rodd & Gunn. His shirt was tucked in. It was easy to imagine him as a kid – a smart, eager, confident presence, toothy and freckled. He grew up in the Waikato, then in Pleasant Point in South Canterbury, as the son of an Anglican vicar.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 07: Labour supporters hold baloons as MP David Cunliffe (centre) guides New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark around the shopping mall as she continues her election campaign trail, at Lynn Mall in New Lynn on November 7, 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand. The New Zealand General Election will be held this Saturday, November 8, deciding the make-up of the 49th Parliament and Government of New Zealand for the three years to 2011. Clark has headed the social democratic Labour Party since 1999, and if successful next month, Labour will begin its fourth consecutive term in office. (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

David Cunliffe with PM Helen Clark and Michael Cullen at Lynn Mall during the 2008 election campaign. Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty

The couple drew closer. Cunliffe was sitting in the passenger seat of his ministerial car parked outside a cafe. He wound down the window, and leaned his head out. He was in a very cheerful mood. The previous night, he had celebrated his promotion by taking his two sons, aged six and two, on a Halloween trick or treat.

The old man stepped up to the car and peered inside. A small, hapless moment in a politician’s life was in progress.

“You’re in the government,” he said.

“Yes. I’m David Cunliffe, MP for New Lynn.”

“Labour, or National?”

Cunliffe moved his shoulders a little bit back further into the car. He has been a Labour MP since 1999. Titirangi is in his electorate. But it was a good question: Cunliffe describes himself as both a capitalist and a socialist. As a high school student, he won a scholarship to an exclusive international college in a castle in Wales: “I got really fascinated when I was there with how the world works and the systems that make the world go around, and why some people end up poor and others rich.”

He studied politics at Otago, but wasn’t politically active. He began his career as a foreign affairs diplomat – postings in Australia, the Pacific, Washington – but left when he won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Harvard Business School. When he graduated, he was handpicked by the Boston Consultancy Group. His minister’s salary is now $225,000; he earned more as a business economist.

His years working on the dark side have aroused suspicions among Labour traditionalists. When I asked him whether he had remained a Christian, he said, “Yes, and for some of my Labour Party colleagues it helps them to understand that I come to the party out of a pretty moral Christian socialist tradition which includes Vogel, and Walter Nash, and Michael Savage.” This reminded me of political commentator Ian Templeton’s verdict of Cunliffe: “The Prime Minister rates him for his personal skills, surprisingly, given his vainglorious propensities.”

“Labour,” said Cunliffe, answering the old man’s question.

“Hmmm.”

There was a silence. Cunliffe said, “I’m the new health minister.”

“Hmmm.”

When I asked Cunliffe about his mother, Cunliffe said she was a hospital matron, “and when I was teenager, I was studying sciences and hoping that one day I might be a doctor, so it’s kind of ironic I’m now the health minister.”

After the second “Hmmm” on the street in Titirangi, there was another silence. Cunliffe said, “And how are you today?”

It may be no wonder that Cunliffe wasn’t recognised by his constituent. He lives with his wife Karen – they met at Otago University when he was 20; she now works as an environmental lawyer – and their sons in Herne Bay, that scented, pretty suburb tucked in by the water close to downtown Auckland. I asked how much his house was worth. He said, “Ahhh. Ummm. Well, quite a bit.”

The old man didn’t answer Cunliffe’s question about how he was feeling. He had been thinking on his feet. “I’ll tell you what you want to do,” he said. Cunliffe moved his shoulders back a little more inside the car. The man said, “With all of the billions Cullen has stowed away in the bank, why doesn’t he spend some of it to research cancer?” The morning paper had published a report by the World Cancer Research Fund.

Cunliffe said, “I’m the new health minister, so I’ll be looking into that.”

The man’s wife said, “Aren’t you immigration?”

“I was until yesterday,” said Cunliffe. “I’m the new health minister.”

The old man’s wife was hard of hearing. She said to Cunliffe, “What?”

He raised his voice, and repeated, “I’m the new health minister.”

Cunliffe’s chauffeur drove him to a nearby beach for our interview. The tide washed in, and lay flat and listless. The October day was overcast, neither cold or warm, vaguely moist – it wore the usual drabness of Christmas Day weather. Cunliffe gave lomng, boring answers, and I drifted out onto the grey tide as his voice chuntered on.

But he said one surprising thing. I asked him what music he liked when he was an Otago University scarfie living in a flat with a hole in the floor where the water heater had leaked, and working as a barman at Regine’s nightclub from 6pm till 3am. He said, “I was into Joy Division and Genesis.”

I could see the vicar’s son listening to the brainy, hideous noodlings of Genesis, but the beauty and existential torment of Joy Division? “And The Cure,” he said. “Soulful music. And the soul has its anguishes well. Music’s always been important to me in being able to get me into a…” He paused for thought, and finished his sentence: “Soulful zone.”

Cunliffe was in another zone altogether with the old man in Titirangi. The childhood in Pleasant Point, Joy Division and Genesis, the castle in Wales and the ambient IQ at Harvard, six years in foreign affairs and three terms in parliament – it had all come to a small, hapless moment in Titirangi on a flat Thursday.

His interlocutor was in the mood for an argument. The old man put his hands on his belt, pulled his pants up a little higher, and said, “Government’s got billions. It’s just sitting there. What’s the use of that?”

Cunliffe said, “Did you know that $4 out of every $10 the government spends is on health?”

“Billions,” said the old man.

“I’ll be talking to Michael Cullen about health spending.”

“Tell him to lower taxes.”

“We’ll look into that, too. Okay,” said Cunliffe, and put his hand through the window for the man to shake.

“Lower taxes,” said the man.

“Well,” said Cunliffe. “Cheerio!”

He wound up the window. Cunliffe’s chauffeur drove away. No one said anything for a couple of minutes.

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