Mallard's moas and David Cunliffe's mangled apology are signs that Labour's still slipping off-message too often... and sometimes not even accidentally

Damage from within. David Cunliffe so close to getting it right, but still so wrong. And potentially strong and popular policy undermined by off-message gaffes... When Labour supporters gathered at the party congress this weekend get around to asking why their party isn't doing better, it only has to look back at the past week to see the party's problems laid bare in miniature. 

If you wanted proof that the party's internal divisions still aren't resolved, you only have to look at Trevor Mallard's moa comments. Some say he's desperate for attention to keep his Hutt South seat, some say he's just going off as usual. But he's more experienced and strategic than that, and this was a prepared speech he was then ringing round urging media to cover, not some outburst. The imagery of extinction was profound; the impression that Mallard would rather waste another three years in Opposition than see Cunliffe as Prime Minister, hard to ignore. It seems pretty clear that some Labour MPs are happy to lose this one so that they can get their own leader/puppet/fellow traveller in place for 2017. To me, that's disgraceful in any party. If you don't believe strongly enough to fight against three more years of the other guys, you shouldn't be standing.

Hence, if Labour party members want any sort of shot at government, they'd better use this weekend to get the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) club in a corner and tell them to shut up or bugger off.

The ill-discipline was catching, though, and Cunliffe went off-message himself on Friday saying he was sorry for being a man.

Now Cunliffe showing passion and speaking from the heart is a powerful thing. This weekend the party wants New Zealanders to get a sense of him, his roots and values from his speeches. If they don't know him, the logic goes, they won't trust him. And if they don't trust him, no amount of policy of organisation will change the government.

As it stands, voters aren't impressed. 3News-Reid Research figures released on The Nation today showed that last November, soon after he won the party leadership, 42 percent thought he was performing well and 25% poorly. By last month that swung right around -- just 26% thought he was performing well and 50% poorly.

That's got to worry members and MPs at the congress. They will be desperate (at least those who want to win) to convince New Zealanders to take another look at Cunliffe and re-evaluate him. That's a tough ask.

It's made tougher when he apologises for being a man. Why? Not because family violence isn't a serious issue. The second part of his sentence was powerful -- it's a male problem and me need to stand up and stop the bullshit. It's great he's so passionate about tackling this issue head on.

But to start by saying he's sorry to be a man at that moment is sloppy politics and lazy thinking. It takes Labour back into the identity politics territory that isn't what swing voters want them talking about.

But worse for me is that it's just plain dumb. He's stereotyping men in a way he never would women, Maori, gays, immigrants or any other section of society. And he's fallen into the trap of effectively saying 'all cats have paws, therefore every animal with paws is a cat'. Being a man is not the problem per se; it's what you do with it that counts.

Sure, problem of violence is, in part, tied up with gender -- with testosterone and cultural norms playing their role.

But don't apologise for simply being randomly born one gender rather than the other. Don't imply a man's mere gender makes him violent. Don't simplify a complex issue. And don't make lazy generalisations.

Would he also apologise for being a pakeha, wealthy professional because they commit most white collar crime? Or being pakeha because all colonial theft and aggression was committed by pakeha?

The other message Labour needs to nail down is its position on Internet-Mana. Cunliffe told The Nation the door and phone line are both open to a post-election deal with the merged party, but that Hone Harawira and Laila Harre shouldn't expect cabinet posts. (Assuming they even want them, though old Alliance pal Willie Jackson said Harre would certainly want to be around the table).

It's an inclusive and risky choice, because he could rule them out any coalition and trust them to give him supply and confidence regardless. I guess Matt McCarten would have something to say about that, however.

Yet how does that sit with his MPs? Cunliffe's two predecessors as leader have been very open. Phil Goff said the merger was "a rort" and Dotcom is "buying influence". David Shearer said the merger "is going to end badly". What's more, Chris Hipkins said they were "unprincipled sellouts". So how do you work with them? How do you pour such scorn and then argue that a government including Internet-Mana is good for New Zealand? That's something that will continue to haunt them this campaign.


Comments (16)

by Nick Gibbs on July 05, 2014
Nick Gibbs

I'm sure Steven Joyce, campaign manager for National, can't believe his luck with the "I'm sorry for being a man" line. It'll look great on all National's anti-labour election hoardings.

If Cunliffe is so clever, how come he's so dumb?

by Kat on July 05, 2014

Tim, please engage your thought processes before reporting right wing is the real 'message' from our next PM.

“Can I begin by saying I’m sorry,” he said.

“I don’t often say it. I’m sorry for being a man right now, because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children.

“So the first message to the men out there is: wake up, stand up and man up and stop this bullshit!”

'Cunliffe apologises for being a man'.......This is the MSM's typical frustrating practice of using simplistic analysis of stray collections of words to bag Labour.

by Andrew Osborn on July 05, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Good post Tim.

In the same week we had the Malaysian diplomat fiasco and (surprise! surprise!) there was David Shearer on the radio sounding....Competent? Solid? Firm? 

I now wonder how much better he could've been if he hadn't had Cunliffe white-anting him in the background.



by Alex Coleman on July 06, 2014
Alex Coleman

Tim, you say "it's a male problem".


If you belive that, and if it is largely up to males to fix it through how we talk about this stuff, and react to each other, and the 'jokes' we tolerate, and so on and so forth then how is anapology for the fact we haven't been doing that appropriate?


If it is a 'male problem' (as you say), that males need to fix, (as you imply),  and yet it still exists, then wtf is the huge problem with his apology? 


Go read the comments on kiwiblog, where his spology was greated with glee and cries of how his balls have clearly been nailed to the door by feminazi dykes. or on twitter where some numptie started talking to me about the misandrist 'domestic violence industry'.

Or John Key saying 'Oh he wouldn't say that to a rugby club'. 


Would Key do his 'not ALL men' routine at a womens's refuge forum?


And why wasn't such a question even asked of him? Because mens feelings are seen as more worthy that those of the refguge people, obviously.


Cunliffe's speech was reported to have filled the refuge spokespeople with confidence. They liked it. Kiwiblog commenters were insulted and reacted with rage. There are your sides.


And as for swing voters. One word Tim. Women. 






by Anne on July 06, 2014

Well said Kat.

From a TV1 news item "Women's Refuge hails Cunliffe's apology "Gutsy": 

"Women's Refuge Chief Executive Heather Henare said Cunliffe's comments were ones she had been waiting to hear.

"That was pretty gutsy and I think that it's unfortunate that part of his speech was picked up in such a negative way," she said.

The Labour leader addressed a family violence conference in Auckland in conjunction with an announcement that his party would put forward a $60 million plan to tackle domestic violence."

She went on to say:

"She welcomed Cunliffe's apology and said Labour seems to understand the gendered nature of violence. We house at least 209 women a night in this country and so we need a govt. that's going to stand up and address that".

I know who I believe. Yes, Women's Refuge. I reckon they know a darn sight more about the matter than you and I Tim Watkin.

Judging by the over the top reactionary response, it looks like misogyny in all its forms is alive and well in NZ!

Could it also be that Labour's $60 million plan to tackle domestic violence - which is the real story here - has engendered concern on the other side of the political fence? 


by Katharine Moody on July 06, 2014
Katharine Moody

I can understand his statement fully - indeed I'm unreservedly embarrassed to be a woman every time I hear of the abuse of a child at the hands of a man. Nature made mothers of (nearly) all species to be hard-wired to protect their young. What has happened to that basic instinct in the female human species that allows dispicable, objectionable, no-hoper, violent men into our children's lives? And I'm quite happy to write in the collective first-person about it. That's just what I think David was doing - speaking in the collective first-person from a male perspective. The, I assume largely male media, bolstered and affirmed by the PM himself, jumped on the opportunistic headline grabbing angle - completely failing to report on/provide an analysis of what's on offer in the $60m spend to determine if there are any new approaches or solutions for the kids (the victims without options) in there.

by mikesh on July 07, 2014

Why the fuss about an apology that was clearly a rhetorical device, albeit a somewhat clusy one?

by Richard Aston on July 07, 2014
Richard Aston

Thanks Kat for putting the statement into context.

However Cunliffe still has to survive the usual soundbite editing that the media does, so I think he could have crafted his " apology" better eg "I am embarrased /ashamed to be a man" or "I am ashamed at some of my fellow men" .


by Tim Watkin on July 07, 2014
Tim Watkin

Kat, I was aware of the context and I don't think that cuts it. And this is in repsonse to Alex too: My problem as expressed in the post is that I find it lazy and stereotypical thinking. I gave the example of white male professionals committing white collar crime (let's say the bosses of finance companies and US banks). Should the whole apologise for the few? And Maori commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Should Pita Sharples apologise for being Maori? That would offend many as a stereotypical and shallow generalisation. So why is it wrong there and right for men? Power imbalance? That seems to be the only difference. And power structures don't make a generalisation any less useless.

Yes, family violence is a largely male problem. And I get the scale of the problem in NZ. And I get to that audience is was probably a powerful message. But ownership of it and apologising on behalf of an entire gender seem different to me. The second half of the sentence was brilliant and is a better way to express responsibility. Further, the way he expressed it only turns off the men who most need to hear the message and gives them a chance to mock it. Sorry, it's just dumb.

Also, as the headline says my critique is also about political discipline. PM's need to be darned careful about phrasing and nuance. You mentioned clumsiness Mike and Key can be terrible as well. But Cunliffe if he wants to lead the country needs to take more care of his words – imagine such looseness in a diplomtic context. Great for the audience he's with, but playing badly elsewhere doesn't wash.

Finally, women swing voters? To a few perhaps Alex. But mostly those already inclined to his party. Most of the women I've spoken to thought the apology silly.

by Anne on July 07, 2014

 "...women swing voters? To a few perhaps Alex. But mostly those already inclined to his party. Most of the women I've spoken to thought the apology silly."

As I suspected, the responses are generally dependant on which side of the political divide you happen to be domiciled. It was along time ago, but I once worked in the TV medium - used to be called AKTV2. Nothing much has changed. 

by Kat on July 08, 2014

Tim, its a sad day when the truth is slagged as a stereotypical and shallow generalisation. Think again, very carefully.

by Tim Watkin on July 09, 2014
Tim Watkin

Anne, it seems as if you're assuming that most of the women I speak/spoke to are on the right. The opposite is true.

Kat, what is "the truth" of which you speak? At least I gave examples and a rationale to explain my point of view. For example, you haven't responded to how you'd feel if someone made a generalisation about your gender or ethnicity or any other group you associate with. Or the point that just because all cats have paws, every animal with paws is a cat. Again, I acknowledge that violence is a largely male problem (personally that's had some profound impacts on my life and I'm raising two sons with that in mind). But that in no way makes generalisations about a whole gender anything but lazy thinking.

by Lee Churchman on July 09, 2014
Lee Churchman

So why is it wrong there and right for men?

Because they want you to uncritically swallow the theory of patriarchy. That's what all this is about. It's not enough for you to accept that domestic violence and sexual assault are problems, you must accept that a shopworn piece of 1970s social theory is the one true explanation for it all. To imagine that there might be other causative factors at work is heresy, and you willl be metaphorically burned at the stake.

by Kat on July 10, 2014

Tim, "the truth" is that family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children. And Tim, if someone made a generalisation about my gender or ethnicity or any other group I associate with I would point out exactly where they have made the generalisation and ask them to think again. Please explain the 'generalisation' that Cunliffe suposedly made.

One last point, the antonym of "sorry" is happy, and in Cunliffe's words he is expressing regret and sorrow.  

by Anne on July 11, 2014

Once again I have to support Kat.

Why is it so many men cannot see that Cunliffe was not "generalising" about men? It was apparent to me, so how come it isn't apparent to supposedly intelligent members of the male gender?  Because most of you are choosing to lift the utterance out of context from the rest of the speech. All Cunliffe was attempting to say was.... "look, violence and particularly sexual violence is perpetrated largely by men. We've got to face up to this truth - own it if you will - and stop turning a blind eye to what goes on around us."  Maybe he could have said it another way but I guarantee no matter how he chose to put it, many men would claim (thinking only of themselves) he was accusing all men of violence or rape. Stupid, stupid stupid.



by stuart munro on July 16, 2014
stuart munro

The apology as framed was a poor rhetorical choice. The conviction statistics, like the Maori morbidity stats (male life expectancy of 50 in the 80s), demand a response from any genuine liberal. He should have apologised, not on behalf of men, but of legislators. This problem should've been fixed before it got so bad.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.