New Zealand: How could Labour have got it so wrong?

And how can they put it right? Elect someone with charisma next time, but maybe that's easier said than done!

After long-time PM Helen Clark departed New Zealand for the third most senior post at the United Nations in New York, Labour elected Phil Goff, her Minister of Defence and previous Foreign Minister as its new Leader. A Leader to fight the 2011 election. 

As he rode headstrong into his new role as Leader of the Official Opposition, Goff trod tainted with the stigma of a previous unpopular Administration. Unthwarted, he strode with a somewhat awkward swaggering gait. Seemingly kicking aside criticism, notably from a former Conservation Minister, Chris Carter, unceremoniously booted out of the Labour Party for offering a critique of the Leadership's style and content, Phil Goff was unassailable in his own apparent perception. Despite dire polls.

Languishing at 6% in the "preferred prime minister" stakes, according to a 2 October 2011 One News Colmar Brunton poll, Goff has failed dismally to make an impact. His Labour Party had dropped a percentage point to 29% in the same analysis of voting intentions. The governing National Party was steady in that poll on 56%, by comparison. Yet, with an election on November 26, could Labour and, importantly for this article at least, Phil Goff recover?

What a distance to cover in a matter of weeks. Would Goff really wish to go down in history as a caretaker Leader, biding time until another more robust colleague was ready?

Phil Goff has led a caucus with policies which have failed to gain traction with the wider electrorate, as low poll ratings encouraged them to focus on their core vote. The poor were to be assisted by an abolition of the sales tax on vegetables and raising the minum wage to NZ$15, for example. Laudable, yet hardly earth-shattering stuff. Blindingly little else novel has been proposed, apart from a populist proposal to refrain from selling more state assets. Much opposition, much less alternative policy.

Meanwhile National has gobbled up the middle ground, leaving others - including Labour - to battle for the margins. Current PM John Key has steered a cleverly devised culturally-embracing path in parliament. In the country at large he is viewed as a safe pair of hands at a time of stormy seas.

But Goff has baracked in the raucous legislative chamber, no eloquent and quietly presidential Jeanette Fitzsimons was he. (Fitzsimons was the highly respected Co-Leader of the Greens until 2009). As if attempting to make himself heard above the racket of agricultural machinery from the distant end of a farming field, Goff exclaimed indignation and propogated either outmoded or ill-conceived solutions to biting issues of the day.

There has been much to criticise in National's handling of affairs, both economic and natural disaster varieties, yet Labour has so far whipped up little enthusiasm for its opposition or its answers. Could the election campaign show a different side to Phil Goff, the caring socially-conscious and doggedly determined well-intentioned politician?

Televised debates might produce insight. They could expose flaws in Key's responses and brilliant perception in Goff's. But it's doubtful.

Labour had an opportunity to elect someone capable of taking the Party forward to the next chapter in its history. A person of charisma and innate intelligence quick enough to outwit Key. But they didn't. They settled for the more obvious and opted for continuity, electing instead an appropriately senior individual. They went for the next-in-line for the top job, and clustered around him like a brood in waiting. But the charismatic Clark had flown the coop. And the Labour caucus was abandoned to its own fait. What a fait that has turned out to be, it seems. The votes are yet to be cast, but the die appears already to have been. 

NZNewswire reports "Labour isn't having a rally to launch its election campaign and party leader Phil Goff's picture isn't going to be on its billboards." What a surprise. 

There are few in the present Labour hierarchy who have come to light over the past three years. Shane Jones, a former Building and Construction Minister, was one. But he was dropped as an Opposition spokesman in 2010 after an expenses scandal with unsavoury elements. David Cunliffe, the Opposition finance spokesman and an ex-Communications and IT Minister, is another. Speculation has surfaced from time-to-time about whether he'd make a bid for the Labour leadership. I am sceptical as to whether Cunliffe has the charisma to match Key and Bill English, the DPM and current Finance Minister. And anyway, is another safe option what Labour really needs? It has to be said, I suppose, that leadership can draw out positive yet hitherto hidden characteristics, and maybe there's more to Cunliffe than most of us as yet appreciate.

It seems to me Jones would make a more adventurous bet. Now the closet door has busted open there's no more to inspect, perhaps. But come-backs are difficult to make, as international experience demonstrates, especially if dirtied lnnen has in the past been publicly aired. For different reasons David Norris and Martin McGuinness are discovering that for themselves in the current Irish presidential campaign

Labour at present is in a bit of a pickle. Unless something's done soon it might find itself out of power for a generation. That would be awful for democracy in New Zealand, and bad for the country's prospects too as dominating parties have a habit of getting lazy and stale. Is New Zealand ready to switch on night-after-night to Key's grin for the next decade?

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  1. I have to take issue with some of this. For one thing, Labour has a very strong policy base (whether or not you agree with them), whereas National's a bit empty in that regard. Big on ideology, but actual policy? Pretty weak, really. And their performance while in office this term has been atrocious. So many missed opportunities, so much extra debt. Your characterisation of Labour as being all about GST on veggies and minimum wage is simplistic.The retirement age discussion today is just one area where there has been realistic policy - a little timid, being 20 years out, but much more sensible than National. (John Ky's response that this was Labour's way of compensating for present expensive policies is a total nonsense, and I'm amazed he wasn't called on it).

    It's also a little unfair to compare Phil to Jeanette - by her standards almost all of them look unrefined. I'd certainly agree we need more like her - yet the Greens are regularly reviled in the mainstream. Phil vs Ky - not so big a gap, just different constituencies.

    Also, the Carter dismissal was hardly about a criticism of leadership style: it was in fact some long-overdue accountability being applied in response to someone who epitomises the pampered entitlement culture of many MPs. Good on Phil for providing a bit of discipline - my patience would not have lasted as long, that's for sure.

    That Key is seen as a safe pair of hands is testimony to the political anaesthesia endemic in this fine country. Smile and wave politics at it's finest. Key is "all hui and no dui" as the expression goes.

    And Cunliffe vs English, as Finance Minister? No contest. Cunliffe as PM, though? Not so much, and I suspect he knows that,

  2. Did you see the party campaign opening speeches/videos? Labour had the best one, by far, Nats the worst, also by far.

    250,000 watchers. Could make a difference?

  3. I thought Labour's ad was OK actually, no great shakes though to be honest. They issued their points of difference, and were effective in what they said. But no, I don't think they're going to rise in the popularity stakes off the back of them.

  4. Having now also seen Key's droning address, I'd agree that his aim might be to bore the people into voting for National.