Editorial: Hope and Heartbreak at Cunliffe’s Conference

David Cunliffe is the Best, an authorised biography by Chris Hipkins and Clayton Cosgrove.

David Cunliffe is the Best, an authorised biography by Chris Hipkins and Clayton Cosgrove.

When Labour leader David Cunliffe said that we could attend his party’s 2013 conference, we were a little surprised, not least of all because we believed these sorts of events were purely restricted to joke media, such as The Standard and 3 News.

We didn’t really believe that a Labour Party with so much at stake would make the basic error of allowing mainstream media like The Civilian to cover such an important event. But stranger things have happened – something that TV3’s Nightline programme is soon to learn – and we were more than happy to stroll on up to reception, receive our media pass that had our name misspelled, and take our rightful place at the media briefing table, much to the resentment of some of the more established news outlets.

This year’s conference was held in Christchurch, at the Wigram Air Force Museum, a popular attraction for the elderly and parents who want to pretend that their childrens’ interest in planes will plant the seeds of an appreciation of their country’s history.

In his address to the conference, Cunliffe told the story of how he’d accidentally walked into the museum’s hangar when he’d meant to be somewhere else, but had stopped for a time in the solitary darkness, contemplating on the feats and sacrifices of his forebears. It was as though David, the Messiah, had been led unwittingly by his heavenly father into a moment of reflection, one that he would carry with him, and would help him find the strength and motivation to conquer the great mountain that lay before him. Or perhaps he had made it up. Try as we might’ve, we weren’t really able to find a plausible way to walk into the hangar by accident.

But true or not, it was the mythology of David Cunliffe and the glowing aura of promise that surrounded him that lay at the centre of this gathering. Most New Zealanders probably don’t know who he is. Most of his MPs don’t want to. But you wouldn’t know that here. At this conference, he’s a hero, a champion of the little guy. When he speaks, the audience erupts. It’s not just what he says, but how he says it.

“You ever heard Cunliffe speak in person?” asked 3 News Political Editor Patrick Gower. “It’s pretty strong stuff. Get ready for fire and brimstone.”

Cunliffe is a strong speaker, but the way his acolytes respond to him, you’d think they’d never seen another strong speaker in their lives. Perhaps in the Labour Party they haven’t.

One elderly delegate – who at one point described herself as “Clayton [Cosgrove]’s slave” – recounted to us an anecdote about one of her favourite Cunliffe speeches.

“As he was speaking,” she said, “these huge gusts of wind came through, and you could barely hear anything. Things were clanging about all over the place, and everyone went silent. But David just smiled and he said, ‘the winds of change are coming.’”

We thought she was about to tell us that he’d stopped the wind. It wouldn’t really have surprised us.

If you want to meet normal, well-adjusted human beings, the Labour Party Conference probably isn’t the best place to do it. It’s not that there aren’t any there; it’s just that they’re overshadowed by the sorts of people who remind you of exactly where you are right now.

It’s important to remember that these aren’t just people with political opinions. No matter how ordinary it might appear on the surface, this is a conference of people who, by and large, have chosen as a vehicle for their political expression an old and tired institution with a long and rich history of letting people down; one being covered by another old and tired institution with a long and rich history of letting people down. Labour members seemed more conscious of the latter than the former.

“Now, you be fair,” another elderly woman told us when she learnt that we were media. “You people haven’t been very kind to us lately… It’s like an abusive relationship, it is, when your partner tells you horrible things about you for so long, and they’re not true, but you hear them so many times that you start to believe them, and you start to think ‘Oh gosh, there must be something wrong with me.’”

We spoke to a lot of interesting people at the conference, and a lot of much less interesting MPs.

“Oh, you’re the guy we weren’t going to let in originally,” remarked Deputy Leader David Parker, in what was undoubtedly one of the warmer greetings we received.

“Will you sign this lovely little book of ours?” we asked, pulling from our laptop bag a small book titled Hercolobus or Red Planet.

Hercolobus is a book being distributed for free online, written by a now-deceased Spanish man called V.M. Rabolu, who warns about the imminent arrival of a large red planet that will bring about the earth’s destruction. Metaphorically, this seemed only appropriate for a Labour Party conference, and we wanted to get as many MPs as possible to sign it.

“Is this a send-up?” asked Parker, who surveyed the book with some scepticism. “I’m afraid I’d have to read it first.”

Despite numerous attempts and offers to let him read the book, at every stage he declined.

But there were many more MPs far less discerning than Parker, who signed our book without much hesitation. These MPs included Grant Robertson, Shane Jones, Jacinda Ardern, Phil Goff, Louisa Wall, Damien O’Connor, Clare Curran, Megan Woods, Ruth Dyson, Trevor Mallard, and someone who called himself “David Shearer,” who we believe may have been the mayor of Wellington at some point. We’re not sure.

“Did they even know what they were signing?” asked education spokesperson Chris Hipkins, who appeared decidedly unimpressed with our endeavour.

“No,” we were forced to admit.

But we didn’t care about Chris Hipkins, and not just because the banner picture on his Labour Party website profile is pixelated. But also because there was only one signature we really cared about, only one endorsement we truly coveted, and it was that of the man of the hour, David Cunliffe.

And it was just like that, that we found ourselves in the same position as every Labour Party member at this year’s conference: waiting upon and placing faith in a man who we didn’t even know would come through for us.

By the time Sunday rolled around, the conference was well and truly winding down. Over the course of the last three days, we’d seen and heard a lot. We’d witnessed the leader of the Labour Party begin the disturbing trend of putting the word “kiwi” in front of every policy. We’d seen him walk around aimlessly on stage, apparently unable to find the podium, which, had he looked, was directly behind him. We saw him use his mother as a well-placed political prop.

We saw Phil Goff try to acquire a seat in the second row, only to be told it was taken. We heard a sobbing girl scream “I’ve put up with enough shit from this party for one day!” before storming into a nearby bathroom, and we were asked “Who are you, little boy?” by recently fired campaign worker Jenny Michie.

Other conference-goers seemed similarly satisfied by their experiences, and by Sunday, seemed about ready to call it a weekend.

“This has been the biggest conference I’ve seen since ’89,” said The Standard’s editor, Lynn Prentice, as he packed himself up to leave. Really? It didn’t seem that impressive, but we suppose we had no point of reference.

“Well, for a South Island conference,” he added. That made a little bit more sense.

We began thinking about leaving ourselves. But before we did, one question had yet to be answered: would David Cunliffe sign our book?

We had already approached David the day before about signing it, but he had expressed the concern that some might believe that he had written it. Indeed, Cunliffe did seem uniquely capable of having written a prophetic book about man’s destiny and the end of all things.

He was pretty unequivocal about it at the time, but we weren’t about to give up there. We went home that night and devised a plan. Sure, Cunliffe wouldn’t sign Hercolobus or Red Planet, but what if it was a book about him?

Using state-of-the-art white-printing-paper-and-felts technology, we constructed a new cover for Hercolobus that cleverly disguised it as a book titled David Cunliffe is the Best, by Chris Hipkins and Clayton Cosgrove. We even went to the trouble of writing a blurb on the back:

David Cunliffe is the Best is the authorised biography of New Zealand’s greatest Prime Minister, David Cunliffe. Written by his two best friends, it is an intimate journey into the heart of a man whose voice stills the wilds and whose accomplishments speak for themselves.

Perhaps Cunliffe could resist signing our first book, but could a man like him really resist a giant picture of himself? We were about to find out.

As Cunliffe left the museum’s plenary hall at the conclusion of the conference, we confidently approached him, awkwardly hovering as we waited for him to finish his conversation with a star-struck youth. He smiled as he saw us, and walked over to greet us.

“No Ben,” he said, as if he had anticipated what we would ask next, “I’m not going to sign it.”

At some point in all of our lives, we’ve experienced rejection; that moment when your heart – so full of love and hope – is torn cruelly from your chest, chewed into an unrecognisable shape and spat out before your very eyes, so that you might be forced to behold its hideous mutilation. It is stomped upon repeatedly, blood splattering against the walls of your soul and dripping down towards the floor as it opens beneath you, giving way to the bottomless abyss of grief that will swallow you whole.

For days, you become a crippled shell of your former self, never wanting to wake up until you absolutely have to, chained to your bed by your own shame. And every time you are confronted with the source of your rejection, you feel like a hideous monster, not turned down only in that one moment, but forevermore feared, avoided, ignored, as though you are an illness that needs purging, as though you have suddenly acquired a gross deformity that makes you repulsive.

Perhaps we should’ve just accepted it then, but faced with such feelings, faced with such a catastrophic blow to our self-esteem, we could not simply let it go.

“But David, it’s a different book today,” we insisted. “Have you not seen the cover?”

He shook his head.

“It’s been great having you here,” he said. “I’ve very much enjoyed reading The Civilian. So, much love and affection, but no, I won’t be signing your book.”

And with that, he was gone, a contingent of disciples and media following him as he confidently embarked upon a golden road that he had paved towards his dreams.

Our road was much darker. As we stumbled back to our car parked on the Wigram airfield, sat in our driver’s seat and ate our chicken pie from the tuck shop, we cried. We cried so hard that it obscured our vision and we ran over a small man. Perhaps it wasn’t about David. Perhaps it was some deeper pain we were harbouring within ourselves. But one thing was for certain: David had let us down.

But why? Why would he refuse such a simple request? Was it for kicks? Was it because he’s secretly illiterate? Or was it because it would be foolish for a man, who may well be only a year away from becoming Prime Minister, to sign an obscure book he’s never read that contains strange declarations about the future of our planet, is slightly sexist and homophobic at times, and written by someone who believes he leaves his body in a state of meditation and flies to a place called the Gnostic Church?

Who knows? People are strange, and sometimes they do things we don’t understand. Politicians are even stranger, and they make certain to only do things that we would understand. People are constantly looking for politicians to take risks, to do something different; something bold. But nothing a good politician does is ever truly bold, because if it were, it wouldn’t sell, and they would no longer be considered a good politician.

A good politician can’t so much as sign a little book for a bit of fun, because we – the very people who demand of them spontaneity and humanity – will later deliberately misinterpret their actions to tear them down, and question whether they exercised “proper judgement.”

It might seem quite trivial, but the reason Cunliffe wouldn’t sign our book is the very same reason he will never be able to fulfil the dreams of his constituents. He’ll never be able to live up to the hopes they place in him, because today, his government is only an idea, one unrestrained by the limitations of public perception, because it exists not in reality, but in their imaginations.