Barbara Cunliffe quite clearly remembers the moment she first suspected her son David would achieve great things.
“He was nine,” she says with a smile. “It was during the school play – an operetta. He was the lead and he had to deliver all of his lines in a musical rhythm. He didn’t drop a single line. Indeed, the play was so successful, they had to do it for a second night.
“From that point on, I lost my identity and became known as ‘David Cunliffe’s mother’.”
It’s a label she hasn’t been able to shake since. But while 90-year-old Barbara says she knew her eldest son was special, she never dreamed he would one day be the leader of the Labour Party and vying to become New Zealand’s next Prime Minister.
Inviting the Weekly into her immaculate Timaru home for an amazing meal of whitebait fritters, Barbara can’t help but beam with pride as she fusses over David (51), who is enjoying a rare two-day visit.
“Mum’s a pretty amazing woman,” he says. “Growing up in Pleasant Point [a small town 19km out of Timaru], with Dad as the reverend, we had to make do on a shoestring budget. But we never went without. Life would have been a lot harder without Mum always doing that little bit extra.”
It’s Barbara’s adventurous spirit and willingness to defy expectations that have inspired David throughout his life.
Instead of settling down to marry and have children in her twenties, Barbara travelled the world for 10 years as a nurse and midwife before returning to New Zealand, having David when she was 39, and second son Stephen at 41.
“I suppose it was quite unusual,” she muses. “But it felt normal for me. I was just thrilled to be having them! Most women did have children early, then later did some of the things they’d felt frustrated about not doing. I did all sorts of things before I married, so I was quite content to be a wife and mother.”
Barbara spent her twenties and thirties travelling and working in Africa, London, Fiji and Australia after getting “itchy feet” in New Zealand.
“I found it insular,” she remembers. “I absolutely loved being a nurse. It was a very satisfying job and, during my time, I had a stab at everything.”
Eventually, she found herself at Waikato Hospital as a clinical supervisor, where she met husband Bill and settled down as the reverend’s wife in Pleasant Point, after brief stints in Te Aroha and Te Kuiti.
“Mum and Dad thought very carefully about moving there,” David says. “I was about nine when we arrived and Dad wasn’t well; he’d just had a series of heart attacks. But it was a great little place to grow up.”
David’s childhood was about as Kiwi as you could get. A gifted academic, he excelled at school, played a bit of rugby and helped his parents in the vicarage.
“I remember we had one of those old washing machines with the wringer arm…” David begins. “Oh yes, and you put your arm through it and broke it,” finishes Barbara. “You were trying to help with the washing.”
“And because of that, Mum had to go and work more shifts at the hospital to replace the old dunger. She worked night shifts when we were kids so it wouldn’t disrupt us. She was there to put us to bed, and there when we woke up in the morning, even though it was a lot of hard work for her.”
Apart from the unfortunate washing-machine incident, Barbara says David was a “very easy boy” to bring up. “He was always very independent.
I remember when he was quite small and I’d read books to him and Stephen before bed, and he’d always say, ‘I want to read it myself, Mum.’”
A keen lover of music, Barbara was delighted when David displayed a talent for the piano, although he’s quick to downplay his musical prowess.
“You have to account for mother’s love,” he laughs.
“He had potential musical ability, but he hasn’t had the time to progress with it,” insists Barbara. “But his talent and his wife’s [environmental lawyer Karen Price] have been passed on to their two sons [William and Cameron]. They’re both keen musicians.”
When he wasn’t knocking out tunes on the piano, David would be down by the river, where Bill, who passed away 20 years ago, loved to fish for salmon.
“I caught my first salmon down there,” David remembers fondly. “It wasn’t a very big one, I think it was 2.5kg. But I was very proud of it!”
Growing up in small-town New Zealand paved the way for David’s future career in politics. Living in the vicarage with Stephen and four half-brothers and sisters from his father’s first marriage (Bill’s first wife Joan died of heart failure at 45), the Cunliffe children were exposed to all walks of life.
“It was a semi-public life,” David says. “The people we’d see were often the people who needed help, so we saw the hard parts of life too.”
But it was when his dad died of a heart attack while fishing by the Opihi River – “a great way to go,” he says with a sad smile – that David, who was working in Washington at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, decided to give politics a go.
“I went to the spot where he passed a couple of days later and caught a salmon,” he recalls. “A 21-pounder [9.5kg].
It felt very symbolic. We smoked it and gave it to family at his funeral. I began to re-evaluate my life. I thought about what I wanted on my tombstone.
“I’d always been interested in politics. Dad was involved with the Labour Party at a local level – I remember colouring in the election-night map in blue and red in 1972!”
Now David admits his life is as far removed from his idyllic childhood as you can get.
Dividing his time between his New Lynn, Auckland, electorate and Wellington, time is a precious commodity, especially in the run-up to September’s election.
But his quick stop in Timaru has done two things: reinforce his determination to give everything he has to the Labour campaign, and remind him of his roots.
“I’m not in this for pleasure,” he explains as Barbara nods. “Getting into the hurly-burly of politics while trying to stay true to your values can be hard. Being Leader of the Opposition is not an easy job, that’s for sure. Sometimes you have to dig deep, and that does make you reflect on why you’re doing it. It’s to try to do something helpful; to make New Zealand a better place to live.”
As for Barbara, she admits she worries about her son when she sees him being criticised in the media, though she understands it comes with the territory.
“Politics is a bear pit,” she frowns. “Maybe worry isn’t the right word – it’s concern. David tells me not to pay too much attention, so I just accept it as another part of life. You can’t live their lives for them!”
Although she never pushed David into politics – “I was never a mother who had any predestination for my children,” – she couldn’t be more proud of her eldest son, even if he never quite made it as a concert pianist.
“He’s done everything under his own steam,” Barbara smiles. “He’s a wonderful man.”
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