Friday 7 October 2011

Man Of Constant Sorrow

With A Lot To Feel Sorrowful About: The question so few commentators have seriously tried to answer since Labour's defeat in 2008: Why Phil Goff? Why did Helen Clark offer, and what made Goff agree to receive, a chalice so full of poison?

HE IS A MAN of constant sorrow, and calling his party soggy-bottomed risks considerable understatement. It’s why my heart goes out to Phil Goff.

What must he be thinking? Standing there upon the threshold of a campaign he seems certain to lose?

One recalls those gallant young second-lieutenants of the First World War, waiting in the trenches, scout-whistles clenched firmly between their teeth, watching the slow sweep of the second-hands around the faces of their pocket-watches. All-too-aware that, from the moment the signal is given to go “over the top” they will be the German snipers’ prime targets.

But isn’t that analogy false? Isn’t Phil really in the position of the red-faced General far behind the front lines? The man whose lack of imagination and utter indifference to the pain and suffering it’s causing, marks him down as the slayer – not the victim?

If Phil was actually in charge of his party, that would be true. But Phil is not in charge of his party. Phil has never been in charge of his party. And that, right there, is the source of all Labour’s troubles.

Far too few people have asked the one, big, bleedingly-bloody-obvious question about the Labour Party of the last three years: “Why Phil Goff?”

What on earth led Helen Clark to the conclusion that the best way to re-build Labour after its resounding 2008 defeat was to nominate and secure the leadership for the man most closely associated with the right-wing remnants of the Rogernomics era? A man who was awkward and fundamentally out-of-sympathy with far too many of the men and women in the dominant factions of caucus? A man who, from Day One, could rely firmly upon only a small minority of his ostensible “followers”?

Helen Clark was no fool. She must have known, even as she placed the crown upon Phil’s head, that the men and women she had slowly and carefully manoeuvred into Parliament over the fifteen years of her leadership would never pay him true fealty. Phil Goff had been a Rogernome. Phil Goff had joined the plot to roll her in 2006. Phil Goff would always be the Right’s first pick. Why make him leader?

There are only two plausible answers.

1) Realising that her Caucus’s enthusiasm for socially liberal policies had cost Labour the 2008 election, Helen Clark nominated the only man capable of credibly repositioning the party closer to the socially conservative values of its electoral base.


2) Helen Clark only ever saw Phil Goff as a stop-gap leader of the party: someone to demonstrate the Labour Right’s political incapacity; someone to take the blame for the party’s post-election irrelevance; someone to make his inevitable successor from Labour’s Left look good.

What choice did Phil have – except to proceed on the assumption that he had been chosen to reposition his party closer to its electoral base? And, with the help of his savvy policy adviser, John Pagani (who, as a former sidekick to Jim Anderton knew a great deal about promoting social conservatism) that’s exactly what he set out to do.

Except his caucus wouldn’t let him. When Phil tried to undercut working-class support for the Maori Party by harshly criticising the political and economic influence of the Iwi Leadership Group his caucus revolted. He was accused of playing the race card and compared to Don Brash. Upbraided by his own back-bench and up-staged by his own Party President, Phil did the one thing no publicly challenged leader should ever do: he backed off.

That Phil Goff was Labour’s leader in name only was now as clear as day. Much murkier, however, was the identity of those calling the shots in the Labour caucus. As the months went by, and Labour’s troubles multiplied, the awful answer appeared to be: “No one.”

Not content with publicly demonstrating their leader’s political impotence, Phil’s enemies then decided to demonstrate their own by refusing to depose him.

Those familiar with the recent history of the Australian Labor Party will have no difficulty in predicting the NZLP’s future.

The leadership will become a revolving-door through which will pass a succession of political hopefuls, each one worse than the last, until, finally, the public discovers a face that fits.

Meanwhile, our Man of Constant Sorrow, stoically readies himself to go over the top.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 7 October 2011.


Matthew said...

Chris, you of all people should know that (and my apologies for not expressing this principle as well as you might) in history a man is rarely the master of his own destiny, but sometimes events put him in a position where he change the world. Whatever Helen Clark's schemes when she put Phil Goff in charge, Phil could have seized the day and reformed the Labour Party. A good leader shows clarity of vision and determination to achieve his aims. Phil Goff hasn't and he rightly deserves our contempt.

Chris Trotter said...

You're right, Matthew, what can I say?

When Grant Robertson hacked into him in caucus over his "Nationhood" speech, Goff should have stripped him of his spokesperson responsibilities and banished him to the furtherest reaches of the back-benches.

He should then have put his leadership to the vote in an all-or-nothing "back me or sack me" bid for genuine control of the party.

Once you've let a first-term back-bencher and your party president walk all over you - there's no going back.

(And don't even get me started on the Darren Hughes debacle.)

Matthew said...

This is Phil Goff's problem. We haven't seen him show that fundamental element of political leadership...power. As much as many well-meaning liberal Labour supporters (with their collectivist, process-driven way of doing things) may shudder at the thought, there is a (dark) part of the human heart that responds to displays of authority. If Phil Goff had flogged (even unfairly) one of his junior MPs early on in his term, people would respect him more now. He didn't and now look at him and the dis-organised rabble in Opposition.

Anonymous said...

There is a way out for Phil Goff.

All he need do is donate a foot to Ritchie McCaw, his groin to Dan Carter and one of his kidneys to Jonah Lomu.

That would get heaps of admiration and would also put him in a wheelchair thus getting sympathy from old ladies as well. Old ladies can be relied on to vote.

If you think that all sounds bloody silly well is it any sillier than someone's heart going out to a right wing Rogernomics retread?

Anonymous said...

Or he could resign, and could have all the way through the disastrous debacle that has been his leadership of the party.

And what awaits him over that ridge: A hobby farm amongst the pony club set, a couple of million, and all the sinecures and directorships he could wish for, or he could take up a pleasant hobby. He and his family are much more secure than 99 percent of NZanders facing these turbulent times. He's got a cushy future ahead - it's all sweet.

Even if he chooses to slum it by, say, using our now god-awful public health system for some little op, he's a someone now, he's rich and he'll be treated quite differently to most who step through the doors, but then, as with most things, he has options, and he never has to have much to do with the riff-raff who he and his cronies consigned to the scrap-heap of intergenerational poverty in the eighties, and continued to scorn for the rest of his career. you know the ever-increasing poor - the people he did back-flips to avoid mentioning these past three years, lest the smell of being a loser clung to his individually tailored suit.

Cry me a river Chris.

As for the 'boy's own' talk of how he could have succeeded by being a real(man)leader by crushing dissent, and kicking ass....

Olwyn said...

You need to bear in mind some of the successes of Helen Clark's government. They did reduce debt, they did greatly reduce unemployment, and they did set up a national savings scheme, to name but a few significant things. It is true that they did not manage to contain the housing bubble (though imagine the screams if they had tried) and the anti-smacking bill, while a Green initiative, was eagerly sheeted at them from the right. I do not think that most workers are perturbed by such matters as civil unions, so long as their concerns are not being neglected.

During that period it was possible to believe that we were emerging from an "immature market economy" to a new stability, in which a more just consensus might be formed.

Since 2008, however, the door has swung shut on that possibility, and the right wing hegemony has been winched up a notch, perhaps to dangerous levels. The problem for the left is not Phil Goff per se, but finding the right focus for fighting this leg of the battle, while remaining true to the core value of social justice.

Unknown said...


I think your comments are somewhat unfair. I know that Phil has been tainted by his time in the fourth Labour Government but they were strange times and he was somewhat on the periphery.

He was a very competent and organized minister of the fifth Labour Government. He was a sure pair of hands, hardworking and dedicated.

When Labour lost in 2008 it was somewhat catastrophic. The trouble is that when you are in power for a long period of time the process of working through a loss is difficult.

I am not sure who else was a possible leader. David Cunliffe is very talented but did not have sufficient support at the time. No one else had the support or ability. I appreciate this does not sound like a ringing endorsement but the aftermath of losses are strange times.

Your propositions are wrong. Phil won because he was the best candidate at the time. And politics is a funny thing, if labour gets up to 37% plus at this election then Phil's leadership will be vindicated and he may be PM, depending of course on the inter party negotiations.

It is too early to write an obituary. The events in Parliament on Wednesday of this week where a crisis occurred showed me that Phil is eminently qualified to handle the responsibility of leadership and Key falls well short. For anyone wanting to consider this the video is at

Of course a couple of MPs have expressed a different opinion and Darren Hughes could have been handled differently but so what? National has also had it's share of melt downs but for some strange reason if it happens to Labour it is a sign of Phil's failings but if it happens to National Key is teflon coated ...

Scott Chris said...

I think you are drawing a long bow if you think Phil ending up as leader was anything more than him being the best of an average bunch.

This idea is borne out by the fact that none of the pretenders have come out to face the music.

A well written piece, all the same Chris Trotter.

Madison said...

Hey Chris, I take this column with a bow. I suggested this well over than a year ago and I'm glad to see it finally getting back in the press. Goff was set up by Clark as a serious man who would try to steer the party the right way while never being a real threat to take the reins. He would hopefully not damage Labour too much while letting the party sort itself out and get it's next management structure in line. I still think he's doing his best with damaged goods but still think he was set up as a fall guy long ago.