POWER PLAY with Brent Edwards

5:59 am on 20 June 2014

Sometimes the frenzy of the parliamentary press gallery's political reportage can lead to hysteria. Wednesday was such a day.

When it was revealed that Labour Party leader David Cunliffe had written a letter to the Immigration Service on the behalf of businessman Donghua Liu in 2003, some reporters immediately demanded Mr Cunliffe resign.

His crime? He had repeatedly said he had never had anything to do with Liu, who soon faces sentencing on domestic violence charges.

Release of the letter was enough for commentators to denounce his conduct and raise questions about his leadership. Mr Cunliffe was forced to defend his leadership and trot out senior colleagues, including his leadership rival Grant Robertson, to back him.

Labour leader David Cunliffe speaking to media at Parliament this week.

Labour leader David Cunliffe speaking to media at Parliament this week. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

On Thursday, a dismal poll for Labour in the Dominion-Post showing support for the party at just 23 percent added more pressure. Journalists were quick to point out, too, that under Labour Party rules only MPs get to vote in a leadership contest within three months of a general election.

When Mr Cunliffe won the leadership last year he did so with the support of party members and the affiliated unions. He was less popular among his fellow MPs.

Back though to the revelation about the letter which unleashed a wave of bad publicity for Mr Cunliffe.

He had repeatedly attacked the National Party's links with Donghua Liu, who had made a substantial donation to the party. Maurice Williamson had been forced to resign as a minister when it was revealed he had called the police about their investigation into the allegations against Liu.

So when it became known Mr Cunliffe had some involvement with Liu, that raised doubts about his criticism of National. It was also reinforced by reports in the New Zealand Herald that Liu also gave $15,000 to Labour, apparently in 2007.

Labour has trawled through its records and says it has found no evidence Liu was a donor. But it cannot dismiss the allegation entirely because money might have been paid to it via a trust or perhaps through an electorate fundraiser, which had not been declared.

The story took another twist when Prime Minister John Key told reporters in New York that he had known about Mr Cunliffe's letter for some time.

Mr Cunliffe, who could not recall it, was only informed by the Immigration Service about the letter a matter of minutes before it released it under the Official Information Act. The service had, however, given it to its minister Michael Woodhouse about a month earlier.

David Cunliffe says he is disappointed with the Immigration Service's conduct. He would have expected it to consult him before releasing the letter and is considering what action he might take, including possibly complaining to the Ombudsman.

Mr Cunliffe suspects political interference. He says it is part of a National Party campaign to smear his character. Senior government ministers deny they are engaged in a smear campaign.

It is clear, though, that National is intent on undermining Mr Cunliffe's credibility, just as Labour has tried to undermine the credibility of John Key.

So far, National's having more success than Labour. Recent polls have shown its support strengthening while Labour's has been weakening.

Just how will the public regard Mr Cunliffe's role in writing the letter on Liu's behalf? The letter itself is unremarkable and simply asks for the Immigration Service to tell Liu how long it will take to consider his immigration status.

But National argues it is a matter of trust and that it is another demonstration that Mr Cunliffe is tricky. It believes those lines have been effective in undermining public faith and trust in the Labour leader.

Mr Cunliffe remains convinced he can lead Labour to victory at September's general election. But he has just three months to turn the party's fortunes around. More weeks like this one will do nothing to lift his hopes of becoming the country's next Prime Minister.

As well, if he gets more bad polls like this week's Stuff.co.nz-Ipsos poll, then he just might have to start watching his back.

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent