Tell it like it is, Phil: Labour's story is the story of everything New Zealanders love about their country: its egalitarianism; its determination to give every citizen a 'fair go'; its willingness to take risks for what's right. If Phil Goff can find the courage to stand up and tell us that story - he'll win.
THERE’S THE BEGINNING of an interesting – and much needed – discussion over on The Standard blogsite about what Labour should be telling us this election year. Political scientists call it "framing the narrative". A cynic might say it’s all about Labour getting it’s story straight.
Shortly after Labour’s defeat in the 2008 election I met with Phil Goff and his sidekick, Gordon Jon Thompson, and, over a very palatable lunch at my local café, offered them the following political parable – by way of understanding where Labour was at that moment, and how it might find its way back into public favour.
I asked Phil Goff to think of John Key as the Flash Harry who turns up to a neighbourhood barbecue at the local reserve. He and his mates arrive in a shiny new SUV loaded down with all kinds of gourmet food and boutique beer. Not surprisingly, they make a pretty big splash and most of the guests are soon crowding around the grill, laughing at Flash Harry’s jokes and drinking his booze.
The night wears on. The gourmet food’s all eaten and the boutique beer’s been drunk. By now it’s becoming pretty clear that some of Flash Harry’s mates aren’t very nice. They’ve started helping themselves to other people’s stuff. One of them is harassing the Solo Mum who lives in the state house down the street. Another is pushing around the teacher who lives next to the school.
People from the neighbourhood are getting pretty pissed-off, but no one’s willing to do anything until this little bloke, who’s been sitting quietly with his friends at the far end of the reserve, steps forward. He challenges Flash Harry to get his mates under control, tells them they’re ruining the party for everyone else.
Flash Harry’s mates try to shut him up, but the little bloke stands his ground. One by one the other guests move in behind him – he’s saying exactly what they feel, and he’s not intimidated by the rich pricks’ threats.
"Hands up all those who think this man and his friends should leave", says the little bloke. He looks around at the forest of upraised hands and nods. Then he walks straight up to Flash Harry, looks him right in the eye, and says quietly: "Why don’t you and your mates just FUCK OFF!"
Okay, okay, I know this would require a degree of fearlessness that Labour (let alone Phil Goff) hasn’t demonstrated for a very long time, but what other choice does the Opposition have?
Phil’s big problem is that he thinks it is still possible for Labour to get its message out through the news media. Let’s not forget that after the Mt Roskill voters threw him out in 1990, he got a job lecturing journalism students at what was then called the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT).
Phil’s model of the news media is that of a rational, disinterested, purveyor of more-or-less accurate information to the public. He believes that, providing they're honest and forthright in the presentation of their policies, most journalists can be relied upon to give politicians a neutral write-up. If the news media fails to fairly represent a politician’s policies it isn’t because they’re biased, it’s because the policies are in some way deficient. In Phil’s view, only a bad politician blames the media for not giving him a fair shake of the stick.
The biggest problem with this model of the media (apart from it being plain wrong) is that it turns politicians into timid little mice who are terrified of being given a fatal mauling by the assorted dogs, cats, rats and ferrets of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Or, to put it more crudely, it transforms Phil Goff into the political hostage of Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner.
What Phil has got to realise (if he wants to reclaim his local reserve from the toffs) is that victory belongs to the political leader who makes the news, not the poll-driven fruitcakes who try to second-guess what Gallery journalists will think is news.
In the context of my barbecue analogy, the little bloke would not have won the respect and backing of his neighbours if he’d sneaked around asking everyone how they would feel if he criticised Flash Harry and his mates. Or, whether they would support him if he openly challenged them to stop their bad behaviour.
That’s not what heroes do.
Heroes step up to the plate. Heroes tell it like it is. Heroes don’t care if what they’re demanding is popular or unpopular – they only care that it’s right.
Deep down, most New Zealanders understand that the good things about their country; the things that people overseas admire and envy; are the things that Labour put in place. Workers’ rights, the welfare state, affordable doctor’s and free hospital care, and an education system dedicated to the proposition that "every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers."
They know that even when they are wrong (as the backers of Rogernomics most assuredly were wrong) it is only the Labour Party that has the courage to reform the New Zealand economy, address the historical injustices of colonisation, and take an independent and ethical position on the world stage.
Labour gives. Flash Harrys take.
If Phil Goff has the wisdom to grasp what New Zealanders value; the wit to determine what New Zealand needs; and the courage to offer those things to the voters, then he won’t only make the news this election year – he’ll dominate it.
And, by midnight on Saturday, 26 November, the local reserve will once again belong to the little bloke and his neighbours.