Friday 11 September 2009

Seize the Platform

Carpe Diem: Phil Goff must seize the opportunity provided by his first key-note speech to a Labour Party Conference as leader to re-set the course of New Zealand social-democracy.

THE LAST CONFERENCE Labour held in Rotorua was a raging success – and, frankly, I was flabbergasted. With Helen Clark’s government still struggling against the backwash of the "Pledge Card" scandal, many commentators were expecting to encounter a demoralised party organisation en route to certain electoral defeat.

Instead, they discovered a rank-and-file membership imbued with a steely determination to hurl their enemies’ taunts right back in their faces. Far from being demoralised, Labour’s workhorses were chomping at the bit – eager for the fray.

Responding to the defiant mood of her party, Ms Clark delivered what was, for my money, the best speech of her political career.

"Why shouldn’t New Zealand aim to be the first country which is truly sustainable", was the Prime Minister’s inspirational challenge to her delighted delegates. "We can now move to develop more renewable energy, biofuels, public transport alternatives … We could aim to be carbon neutral. I believe that sustainability will be a core value in 21st century social democracy."

Labour’s rank-and-file went wild.

Tragically, on the way back to Wellington from Rotorua, Ms Clark’s innate conservatism got the better of her rank-and-file-inspired defiance. What should have been the beginning of a new and exciting political conversation, very quickly reverted to the same old monologue.

In the end, Ms Clark’s impassioned speech to the 2006 Rotorua Conference turned out to be one of those inspired raves you sometimes hear a normally quite staid person deliver at a particularly good party (after one-too-many glasses of wine). Fantastic on the night – forgotten by the morning.

In Denis Welch’s excellent biography, Helen Clark: A Political Life, the former prime minister observes that: "Power doesn’t clarify – it blurs".

Is that why Ms Clark failed to follow through on the transformational challenge she’d laid before her delegates at Rotorua? Because no one on the Beehive’s Ninth Floor could maintain a clear view of New Zealand’s future?

If so, then we need look no further for the cause of Labour’s 2008 defeat.

Nobody votes for a blur.

And before Phil Goff objects that "a blur" is exactly what the country voted for last November, let me just say that, by the end of 2008, all Labour’s opponents expected John Key to be was Not-Helen-Clark: and very, very, clearly – he wasn’t.

So what does Mr Goff have to deliver – with maximum clarity – from the stage of Labour’s 92nd Annual Conference? What sort of challenges does he have to lay down before his Party’s rank-and-file to make them raise the roof of Rotorua’s Energy Events Centre?

I’m hoping – and I mean really hoping – that it isn’t a challenge to follow the lead of Mr Goff’s old mate, and one of the Conference’s keynote speakers, the Labor Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann.

Mr Rann, you’ll recall, leads a government which has outlawed gangs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Mr Rann isn’t on to something with his anti-gang policy. All I’m saying is: any attempt by Mr Goff to portray himself, and the N.Z. Labour Party, as the political equivalents of the hard-line cops in Underbelly would be a disaster.

In any competition to out-tough the National and Act parties on law and order, Mr Goff will always come in third. Sure, threatening the gangs may help him boost his public image as (to quote Bette Midler) "a real man, a good man, a true man", but it will contribute nothing to meeting Labour’s most important challenge of the next two-and-a-half years: Re-defining the role of government in the 21st Century.

How do we set about transforming the clearly failing 20th Century State into what the American IT wizard, Tim O’Reilly (quoted earlier this week on the Labour-friendly blogsite, The Standard) calls "Government 2.0".

"Too often," writes O’Reilly, "we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection ….. Imagine if the [state] were to re-imagine itself not as a vending machine but as an organising engine for civic action."

In other words: government as "platform".

If Mr Goff, in the tradition of "The Rotorua Challenge", were to ask Labour’s rank-and-file to help him clarify and develop O’Reilly’s 21st Century vision of the State, they’d likely cheer him as loudly as they cheered his predecessor.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 11 September 2009.


Anonymous said...

well,in the event, the dick head pranced around on a motorbike trying to look cool. you can imagine the success rate.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't condemn Rann's SA government too quickly. It is both popular and populist - that's how it's stayed in power so long.
I think in the longer term Goff's leadership will be judged well and positively, he knows government is about winning and winning is about appealing to the widest mass of voters (sadly Chris, from your perspective that means pitching to the centre as much as the Left).
If things go radically wrong with National over the next two ears Goff will be seen as a safe pair of hands for voters who are looking for an alternative government.