Saturday 28 November 2009

The Liberal Left: Who Needs You?

Shrugging-off the Liberal Left: Phil Goff's 'Nationhood' speech acknowledges Labour's need to realign itself with the vast majority of New Zealanders who don't despise their own history and culture.

PHIL GOFF’S 'Nationhood' speech has achieved its purpose admirably.

The primary audience was, of course, the 150,000 to 200,000 former Labour voters who defected to John Key’s National Party in 2008.

To these New Zealanders he was saying: "It’s okay, you and I think alike on this. I’m not going to brand you a racist because, like me, you were offended by Hone Harawira’s obscenities; or because you were repelled by the dirty dealing between National and the Maori Party over the ETS legislation."

And that’s just fine. Electoral politics is a zero-sum game. Those faint-hearted liberals who can’t stand the heat should get out of the kitchen.

Goff’s secondary audience was Maoridom itself. As a good social-democrat he was simply challenging Maori voters to recognise the reality of class.

This is not a big ask. Most Maori know full well that their culture is riven with inequalities. Those on the receiving end of the Maori version of primogeniture – the second sons (not to mention daughters) denied equal political rights on the marae – have little incentive to cling to their cultural "heritage". Just as those families who continue to be denigrated because their forebears were enslaved by an enemy tribe have no reason to revere the patriarchal aristocratic traditions of pre-European Maori society.

And, for those Maori not fortunate enough to belong to the privileged little communities of social and commercial privilege that have grown up around the multi-million dollar Treaty of Waitangi settlements of the last decade, the sordid deal struck between the National and Maori parties to secure the passage of the ETS legislation is already a source of ethical and political embarrassment.

By driving the wedge of class analysis into the Maori Party’s nationalist ideology, Goff has shrewdly exacerbated the tensions and divisions created by the ETS sell-out.

Labour needs a Maori Party divested of its disreputable links with National Party politicians and Business Roundtable ideologues. Goff’s mission is to help the Maori Party eliminate its right-wing leadership. Why? Because what the Labour Party and the pragmatic Left both need is a Maori Party which, like Ratana before it, recognises the essential kinship between the dispossessed of the Pakeha and Maori worlds.

Sadly, the response of liberal leftists to Goff’s speech has been as predictable as it has been disappointing. Their reflexive condemnation of anyone who dares to hold Maori politicians to the same standards as Pakeha betrays an arrogant unwillingness to accept the ethical norms of their own society. These people have become the fervent champions of an indigenous culture they can never truly join because, fundamentally, they despise their own.

Should anyone care? Not really. This segment of the New Zealand Left is risibly small – probably numbering fewer than 5,000 individuals. Very few of them occupy positions of genuine power or influence, and fewer still possess the political skills to advance their cause much beyond the blogosphere, or the letters page of the daily newspapers.

They have no understanding of, nor empathy for, the hopes and fears of ordinary people. Nor do they understand the brutal and unforgiving realities of electoral politics. The truth of the matter is, liberal leftists have been preaching to themselves for so long they no longer appreciate how few people give a tinker’s cuss what they say.

In the face of the Liberal Left’s entirely predictable criticism, Phil Goff should just keep his head down and press-on regardless. He mustn’t forget that in November 2008 New Zealanders decisively rejected the Liberal Left's vision of New Zealand's future. The great virtue of his 'Nationhood' speech is its recognition of that rejection. By abandoning the failed, identity-driven politics of the past 30 years, and returning his party to its egalitarian and socialist roots, Phil Goff has taken the first, and absolutely necessary steps towards Labour’s rehabilitation – and re-election.


Chris Trotter said...

Lew, please post your comment again. It somehow got lost en route to publication.

Anonymous said...

This right winger is now voting for Phil, wish I had voted Labour last year, too.


Chris Trotter said...

Aha! Do I detect the pitter-patter of voters' feet as they make the cross-over from National to Labour?

Robert Winter said...

'Disappointing' and 'predictable' as they may be, there is a common and thoughtful thread across many of these commentaries which is not reducible to irrelevancies of a 'liberal left' That thread worries about the opportunism in Mr Goff's speech, an opportunism that has more to do with Alastair Campbell than a new Labour politics. I must also say that, as far as I can see, your strategic interpretation of the speech (re the Maori Party and the return to egalitarian and socialist roots) is a post facto, and generous, rationalisation of the speech's contents.

Just to be clear: the does the above mean Ms Clark was 'liberal left' and Mr Goff is now something else - a sort of 'authentic left'? If so, it does suggest that the idea of the 'liberal left' is perhaps useful only as a whipping boy. And without any rudeness intended, I rather think that's where most people would locate you.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. Good companion piece to Gordon Campbell's analysis on scoop.
One aspect that I'd enjoy your comments on is how those on the left who have reflexively attacked Goff square their views with the fact he is saying nothing that Shane Jones hadn't said early in the week or the fact that both Jones and Horomia have come out backing him.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm afraid I can't agree, Robert.

Running through all of the postings I've linked to is exactly the sort of knee-jerk liberal orthodoxy which has plagued the New Zealand Left since the early 1980s.

Its ideological roots descend into the swamp of identity politics and the New Social Movements which were at that time engaged in tearing apart the complex web of personal and political relationships that made up the traditional labour movement.

The NSMs bear prime responsibility for the demise of genuine working-class politics and its replacement with what we have today - a Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy thoroughly dominated by middle-class liberals weaned on the identity politics of the past quarter-century.

Goff's social origins and political instincts place him at odds with this narrow, but extremely vocal, minority. As does Labour's urgent need to strip 10 percentage points off the National Party. (That's 200,000 voters, Robert - roughly 40 x what I would generously estimate to be the total number of liberal leftists in the whole country!)

Goff's only viable electoral strategy is to jettison these pampered ideological passengers from Labour's waka.

Leave them for the Greens to pick up. They will have no difficulty whatsoever in recognising so many bedraggled soulmates.

And, fear not, I take no offence at all at being christened "the scourge of the Liberal Left".

Lew said...

Chris, I didn't post it on this thread, but on the one before last, about the Devil's Work. Unfortunately I can't paste it into this comment interface for some reaosn. Happy for you to respond either here or there.


Brendon Mills said...

Hear hear, Chris.

You have said exactly what I have thought. Maori need to wake up and realise that it is not the white man that is ripping them off, but their own aristocracy.

Anonymous said...

Pitter patter, yep. Must get my membership renewed, too. Tanya.

Anonymous said...

It seems Helen Clark knew what she was doing when she left Phil Goff in charge. She was always an astute reader of the New Zealand electorate.

I'm not sure it really matters what the liberal left or the media say about Phil's speech. It seems, as I read around the net, the more criticism Phil's speech receives, the more people want to rush to defend him. Phil finally gave voice to what the silent majority have been thinking for many years. Bravo.

The liberal left mistook 20 years of silence for agreement. I'm not sure many people really agreed with the treaty settlement process. I think middle New Zealand tolerated it, but with the suspicion that in the end the elite would get the money and ordinary Maori would end up no better off. Which is largely what happened.

I am really enjoying your columns Chris- you are in top form these days.

Anonymous said...


While I agree that Identity Politics was always a blind alley for the left (and not just in New Zealand), I find it hard not to see Goff's current positioning as a form of electoral opportunism, not wholly different to Brash's Orewa speech.

The idea that Labour might entice the Maori Party out of its marriage to National and its corprorate pals is, I think, illusory.

What Labour needs to be thinking about is how to recapture the Maori seats and anything that smacks of Maori bashing isn't going to help.

And, by the way, I think that Labour stopped being primarily a liberal identity politics sorority some time prior to the 1999 election, instead becoming a very moderate and cautious social democratic party.

It's a pity about the moderation but I don't see Goff doing anything to change that.


Idiot/Savant said...

Sadly, the response of liberal leftists to Goff’s speech has been as predictable as it has been disappointing. Their reflexive condemnation of anyone who dares to hold Maori politicians to the same standards as Pakeha betrays an arrogant unwillingness to accept the ethical norms of their own society. These people have become the fervent champions of an indigenous culture they can never truly join because, fundamentally, they despise their own.

[Emphasis added]

Be honest, Chris. The word you're looking for is "self-hating Pakeha". Or maybe "race-traitor".

Chris Trotter said...

If the cap fits,Comrade ...

John Pagani said...

I think this is the most astute reading of the state of left politics that I've seen recently Chris. It's about connecting with things that matter to people and making politics work for people, instead of instructing people in what's good for them and inventing fabrications about the people the left represents.

Wonder if you saw these comments from Shane Jones, strongly supporting Phil's speech:
"The Maori Party response is to hide behind the fig leaf of race rather than account for why they do sly deals with a privileged tribal elite.

“The Maori Party is complicit in underhanded double dealing which benefits a narrow gentrified southern tribal class. They have repudiated their own members who opposed the ETS, and have left a enormous amount of ill will on the back of corporate welfare for the elite of planet Ngai Tahu.

“These issues are genuine political matters and given they represent a potential $1 billion corporate subsidy to a privileged tribal elite, the Maori Party now needs to account for itself to its own supporters as well as New Zealanders generally."

Idiot/Savant said...

If the cap fits,Comrade ...

Quite apart from the fact that your apparent theory that people owe loyalty (!) first and foremost to their own race doesn't exactly fit with your usual "class uber alles" approach (let alone the message that you claim Goff is trying to pitch to Maori), don't you think its just a little morally dubious? Are you trying to invite comparisons with the National Front?

Cactus Kate said...

Nothing to disagree with here Chris.

Chris Trotter said...

Really, Idiot Savant, there are times when I seriously question your powers of comprehension.

I'm not channeling the National Front, here, nor am I sewing my bedsheets into Klansman's robes.

All I'm doing is calling into question an ethical system that sees nothing untoward in applying one set of rules to one ethnic group, and an entirely different set to another.

For surely, to absolve one group of the sins for which the other is relentlessly punished suggests - at the very least - bad faith.

Punishing the sons for the sins of their fathers may have the authority of scripture, but it's an odd proposition for any self-respecting citizen of the 21st Century to be defending.

We fair-skinned Polynesians are no longer “Europeans”. Just as contemporary Maori are no longer – and can never be again – the Maori who inhabited these islands before colonisation.

Both of us are the victims - and beneficiaries - of historical forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt.

Anonymous said...

Lovely kai for thought as always Chris, but I'd counsel restraint on your criticism of the ingenues, however justified and/or provoked. Internecine dissent is the deadliest disorder - in fact cancer defined - and the root of Labour IV from which the nation still recovers.

And yep, love the new Goffo, but even more simplistic reversion required. As your spat with the puffy-shirt kids confirms, the truth of ages is almost lost: that crucial, apathetic 100,000 needs to hear "Labour for the poor, National for the rich" about ten thousand times (that's around the number of "Nanny state, North of $50/wk" repetitions that delivered us Grinny and the Dronetones)

Speaking of cancer, the need for Goffy to revert even further, trumpet Helen's gains for Maori and reassert Closing the Gaps is urgent(none of this in is inconsistent with his latest speech), and caution on Maori Party attacks: more than a few vote-buying beads and blankets are being delivered below the radar - and ACT sits in the wings like a panting rotweiller. Destroy the MP leverage and Grinny-do-nothing will respond to media demand like clockwork.

Anonymous said...


Your realpolitik certainly appeals to Cactus Kate, to Tanya the right-winger above, etc. The odd think is that you think they are the people the "Labour" party should appeal to, rather than those damn liberal-lefties. Are those right-wingers really your comrades? Really?

As for the "one law for all" approach - of course it's right. But you're pretending it's simple, when it isn't. With the Foreshore "one law for all" is exactly what the Maori wanted, but when it turned out the courts said they had a claim to some parts of it, parliament's approach was to change the law to take away their property. So please don't pretend it's as *simple* as just saying that both groups should be treated equally under the law, when you also supported (and support) changing the law to take away one group's property.


PS: On the "you don't see rhetoric like that any more" front, I love the appeal to "historic forces" by an old leftist. It's an argument I haven't seen in ages. Of course you'll recall that it was an excuse that Lenin loved - the slaughters he oversaw weren't anyones fault, it was just historic forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt.

Robert Winter said...

How interesting that Mr Pagani joins the thread in support of the blog's thesis. I become confused by its thrust, Are we talking about a politics that starts 'where people are' and takes them foward in a political project - a type of reflexive politics? Or is it a return to authentic (socialist) roots - a connection with traditional left politics, broken until now by liberal social movement activity? Or a Blair-like desire to create a politics that wins votes and will reconfigure politics with that sole end in mind? A piece on Blair in the Herald, but from a UK source, made this point rather well yesterday. All three possibilities may be discerned in the thread so far.

I think that we have to distinguish clearly between what Mr Goff chose to say when he said it from some of the substance in the speecch. Chris is right that much of the substance is correct. But the context of its statement is supremely political and, if you will forgive the repetition, Chris' post-facto suggestion that the speech is a statement of a new, anti-liberel left labour politics (my paraphrase) is, I think too generous. Mr Goff is not, I think, the creator of a new left paradigm. Apart from being an excellent constituency MP, he is, and has been since the 1980s, quite openly a comfortably an intelligent, very hard working right wing member of the LP, pretty happy with economic orthodoxy, free trade, the WTO, the NZ-US alliance, Afghanistan involvement, labour market flexibility, punitive retribution in the judicial system, a hands-off approach to the unions etc etc. His orientation is not to a renewed proletarian vanguard, or, I think, even to s atrong Scandinavian-type social democracy. He is more akin to the forces that supported Blair. This,I think, makes Chris' argument untenable. It also suggests that the contingent nature of the Palmerston North speech has more to do with a political opportunism than a strategic redirection. I can only report that the LP members with whom I consort detect no such strategic direction and are currently chafing for one.

If Chris is right, then it might be a good idea for Mr Goff to inform the LP that there is a new, regenerative game in town. We hadn't heard, at least. not in Auckland! Apologies for length.

Anonymous said...

Well written thank you.

BUT: Where to from here for Goff? He cannot simply make a speech like this in-vacuo and expect it to continue to resonate through the electorate. Perhaps he has commenced a course he is not qualified to pursue? I suspect this is so and all we have here is a cynical opportunism to reap the political benefits of a disparate Maori Party.


Anonymous said...

Robert Winter

I agree with you 100%. There is no new Socialist or even Social Democratic paradigm here. The closest we have got to that so far with Goff was his mild questioning of the Reserve Bank Act.

I also take icehawk's point about "one law for all".

Labour's foreshore legislation deprived Maori of their rights under the English Common Law, which (although revisable by statute) remains the basis of New Zealand's legal system and part of the cultural heritage of most Pakeha.

You can't, as Chris does, complain about liberals who allegedly despise their own culture and, at the same time, celebrate the diminishment of so important a pillar of that culture.


Chris Trotter said...

What's truly depressing about some of the participants in this thread is that they don't seem able to recognise a major political shift when they see one.

Of course Goff hasn't come out and bluntly repudiated Labour's policy legacy of the past 25 years. In a society as dominated by neoliberal ideology (and its media enforcers) as this one, that would be foolhardy indeed.

No, any repositioning must be undertaken slowly and carefully - taking advantage of populist opportunities like Harawira and the ETS debacle as they arise. (Rod Oram gets it - just read his column in today's SST.)

I do concede, however, that telling the Drinking Liberally crowd that the only choice of economic systems on offer is the one between full-on neoliberalism and Stalinism - that was just plain silly. He's going to have to unlearn all of those 80s and 90s knee-jerk responses if he's going to pull this off.

It's the metaphor of the oil tanker (horribly cliched though it may be) that's the right one to use here. Re-directing an entire economy, and the state which supports it, is not something that happens overnight - and you need a great deal of exogenous assistance.

Mickey Savage couldn't have constructed the Welfare State outside the circumstances of the Great Depression. And Roger Douglas couldn't have laid it to waste in the absence of the global neoliberal counter-revolution which Thatcher and Reagan had ignited 5 years earlier (or, I strongly suspect, without the historical anomaly of Rob Muldoon).

Read Naomi Klein for God's sake!

And boy-oh-boy, I am so "over" all the self-serving, rhetorical BS that has grown up around the Foreshore & Seabed Act.

This was neither a legal outrage, nor a neo-colonial "confiscation".

No customary rights were extinguished, because no customary rights were established - although the Court of Appeal did concede that after clearing a very high legal threshold they might have been.

The really crucial aspect of the case, however, (which Ngati Apa fully expected to lose BTW) was that the Court of Appeal's decision overturned several decades of what most NZ jurists believed to be settled law.

In such circumstances it was not in the least unusual - let alone immoral - for the New Zealand legislature to reassert the status-quo ante.

The doctrine of the separation of powers makes it clear that while the judiciary enjoys the sovereign right to interpret and apply the law, the ultimate power to make the law (offering the necessary bow here in the direction of judge-made common law) lies with the people - as represented in the legislative arm of the state.

What the Maori nationalists are trying to sell us is the idea that once the Court of Appeal has pronounced upon a legal issue before it - that's it. End of story.

Well, nice try comrades, but no cigar. We happen to live in a democracy - not a judicial dictatorship.

The only sovereignty our constitution recognises is the sovereignty of the people - ALL the people.

Besides, I don't recall the advocates of tino rangatiratanga mobilising their forces in defence of the hundreds of thousands of working class citizens who were denied their "day in court" by the passage of the Employment Contracts Act - the largest "legal" confiscation of citizens' rights in New Zealand history.

But, hey, they were all just no-account, racist, sexist, homophobic, child-beating trailer-trash - not worth the shoe leather.

Eh guys?

Bomber said...

Hear, hear!

Graeme Edgeler said...

The only sovereignty our constitution recognises is the sovereignty of the people - ALL the people.

If only!

I take this side occasionally - it's how it should be - but the standard (and probably legally accurate) argument view is that Parliament is sovereign. It should change, but that's how it is at present.

Anonymous said...


This is not worthy of you

I'm one of those who did protest over the Employment Contracts Act, who never saw Tino Rangatiratanga as anything more than a neo-feudal denial of Democracy and who regards the whole identity politics stich as, at best, a step sideways from what should be the main concerns of centre left governments. (Will Hutton has, from memory, written some good stuff on this).

I would love to think that Goff is repositioning Labour back to its traditional place on the socio-economic left (although I am not as left as you). I just don't see the evidence.

All I see is 'Orewa-Lite'with a bit of Mike Moore blokeism-Lite thrown in.

It may work and provide Labour with the electoral traction it needs. If so, I will be cynically pleased. But that's all.

In the meantime you're asking us all to affirm the existence of the unproven.


Jonathan said...

Chris, my understanding of this piece seems to be something along the lines of "well bugger the 'liberal left', they don't matter, if Goff going for the jugular gets Labour back in power then so be it'..

My only question would really have to be, is it worth going racial and having that sort of scrap just to get Phil Goff into power? I think portraying him as a socialist who happens to be a bit more rough around the edges than those liberal left girly-types is pretty disingenuous isn't it? Why, it was only earlier this year that the man described the founding principles of the Labour Party as "19th century history" and that he saw no fault in our market based economy? I guess he still has a year or two in order to undergo some sort of personal conversion.. at the moment he seems to be doing everything in his power to follow in the footsteps of Bill English circa 2002. Maybe he should challenge Hone Harawira to a boxing match? I'm sure it would make for good television, at least

Conor Roberts said...

Just remember what Bruno Gianelli said about being a liberal:

Anonymous said...


Regards why "one law for all" isn't simple: you know that I'm not arguing against the sovereignty of parliament.

Nor is your claim that the seabed and foreshore act took away no common-law rights to property reasonable: if it denied no possible common-law rights then they wouldn't have bloody well passed it. We both know that.

So please, let us leave the straw men to moulder.

The point is this:

You can't consistently claim that "one law for all" is an argument against parliament passing a law that explicity grants Maori property rights (re reopening closed settlments and the current ETS fandango) and at the same time support passing a law explicitly designed to deny the possibility of common-law maori property rights in the foreshore and seabed debacle.


Omar Hamed, Socialist Aotearoa said...

Drinking Labourly with Phil Goff
Omar Hamed, commentary-

"In the end I left with the feeling that Goff was preparing to move his party to the left, just as Clark had done at the end of the 1990s with the rhetoric of “closing the gaps”, but that the core values of the Labour Party were still the suppression of tino rangatiratanga, commitment to neo-liberalism and a pandering to powerful foreign interests in return for trade deals."

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Conor, I love Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" too. But ask yourself this question:

"Why is it that politicians who speak like that only ever get elected in television drama series?"

I think I know why. Let me tell you how I know.

I know that guys like Gianelli only get elected in fictional television series because I tried it out in real life - as a candidate for the NewLabour Party in 1990.

All that passion, all that rhetoric, all that 'let's have two parties' stuff - I had the lot. And I stood up there on the hustings alongside Pete Hodgson and Mike Cullen, and Conor, let me tell you, I was on fire.

And guess what?

I lost my deposit.

Robert Winter said...

'What's truly depressing about some of the participants in this thread is that they don't seem able to recognise a major political shift when they see one.'

I've tried to see it but have failed. But don't be depressed - Matthew 13:57 'And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house'.

James Caygill said...


well said. I'm as liberal as they come on many issues (despite arguments with I/S occasionally).

But I'm 100% behind Phil's comments. Labour should not be liberal fist, and the party of social democracy second - it must be the other way around.

I'm really pleased with Phil's speech and sad (although not surprised) by those who miss the bigger message.

I'm glad to see you got it :)

Anonymous said...

All I'm doing is calling into question an ethical system that sees nothing untoward in applying one set of rules to one ethnic group, and an entirely different set to another.
You mean like what Labour did with the Foreshore and Seabed legislation?

Roberto said...

Excellent Chris.

Why is it that is seems that many left leaning blogs cant have a sensible conversation around the treaty without using the "racist" tag!

Some left blogs seem to think we need to be in bed with the Maori Party to get into government.....i dont agree....and wouldnt want to after what appears to be a Super Tory Maori Party where they are favouring the few rich maori and saying bugger you to the rest.

Liz said...

Hi Chris, There appears to be a logical flaw in your argument. If the numbers of members of the liberal left club in New Zealand is less than 5,000, and very few of them hold positions of power and influence, then how come they (whoever the hell they are) manage to get so many column inches. And why do you bother with them? I always thought of myself as a liberal leftie but the group I belong to is much larger than the one you allude to, and understands the dangers of pointing the finger, especially in a fragile economic environment where blaming 'the other' for all our woes is an attractive option.

Anonymous said...

Mr Trotter, a very interesting analysis.

I think the big reality you've missed though is that whatever Mr Goff's personal views are (and it's hard to see what they are, since he does seem very malleable), and however little influence and numbers the liberals might have in general society, they still dominate the Labour Party caucus by a wide margin.

I don't think Mr Goff can afford to burn off liberal voters when he's at five percent in the polls.

Tim Ellis

Chris Trotter said...

To Icehawk et al:

It bears repeating that the Court of Appeal decision affirmed no customary property rights - merely that the Crown's assumed ownership of the F&S was legally unenforceable.

So, to make Crown (i.e. public) ownership indisputable required legislation. The beaches were declared to belong to everybody, but at the same time considerable effort and imagination was devoted to devising a way of working Maori customary rights into that collective framework.

All-in-all a pretty good effort.

Maori nationalism, however, was not about to pass up the opportunity to score a massive propaganda victory. Nor was it silly enough to let the chance to establish a dual polity in New Zealand slip through its fingers.

I have to say "Hats off" to the Maori Party for running so far down the paddock with the F&S political football. Nor can one fault them for the sheer audacity of their over-arching political strategy.

Doesn't make it right though.

Jeff said...

With all respect Chris this article just proves how far out of touch you are with one of the two swing group of voters. "Your lot" as you want to put it with your obbessions with 'class' have and always will vote labour, cause you dont have another choice with the demise of the Alliance.

The swing vote are the trades people etc and the liberal group which you so dispise. Yes this speach, which to be blunt was shit (Dimpost sums it up the best) was meant to appeal to this sector. However the other group is the urban liberals, who do not number '5000', rather hundres of thousands. These are the teachers, lawyers, students and other highly educated people who choose to pay more tax because they believe in progressive social policy and more importantly what you term 'liberal issues'. However this group will swing when Labour loses the plot, as it has for the last 4 years.

So get a grip.

Anonymous said...


I know quite a lot about schoolteachers- I'm married to one, am a child of one and have met hundreds over the years. They are not necessarily liberals. I have known quite a few who vote National. The ones that vote Labour generally do so to even the economic playing field.They put up with the liberal nonsense- but I think you might be surprised how little some of them like it.