Sunday April 12, 2009: Q+A's Paul Holmes interviews Labour Leader, Phil Goff.
PAUL Now the Labour Leader Phil Goff is a man with a job on his hands, he has to emerge really from the shadow of Helen Clark and establish himself as leader and take the party back to where it might win office again. No one realistically thinks this is going to happen quickly the country still seems to be not particularly listening to Labour. The latest polls have the party polling lower than in the last election while satisfaction with John Key's National government is still at honeymoon highs. Phil Goff in parliament for more than a quarter of a century is with me, good morning.
PHIL GOFF Good Morning Paul.
PAUL So what are you gonna do?
Well I think that when you've lost an election the first thing you've gotta go back, is go back out around the country through the cities around the regions and do some listening.
PAUL When you tried to do that though you went to Westland and it didn't seem right, it seemed a bit cack-handed.
PHIL No I disagree with that I think we got a very good reception from the people at Westland and since Westland I've been in Rotorua, I've been in Nelson, I've been in Hamilton, I've been quite a number of place around the country and it gives me a new opportunity that I haven't had partly because I've been Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade over a long period of time, but to get around our communities, to hear what people's concerns are, to hear what their needs are, to hear what their aspirations are, and I've gotta say generally people are pleased to see you,, that doesn't mean to say they've changed their support or that they're going to vote, but they're pleased that you're there and they're pleased that your listening.
PAUL What are they telling you about why they might have turfed you out?
PHIL Well actually it was interesting I went to a meeting of the Rotorua District Council and one of the Councillors go up there in front of all of his colleagues and the Mayor and said look I think the Labour government did a good job, he said I voted National last time, I think you got the big things right but the little things irritated me. Later on in the day he told the Council well he was re-examining his position, but I think that's right, there were things that you do after nine years in office that irritate people, people think that there's a need for a change, give the other guys a go and if we don't like them we can toss them out in three years, that sort of feedback.
PAUL Are you still in denial, it was a massive rejection.
PHIL Well no it was a rejection, we're out of government and we need to be humble about that, but a massive rejection - what people have said around the place is by and large they think Labour performed well, even the polls show that, what did you think of the performance of the last Labour government, it was pretty good but there were things that we didn't like about it, there were some issues, law and order was a big issue, it's on television every night, nanny state was a bit of an issue, predominantly the issue was we'd like to see a change.
PAUL What about you as the Labour leader do you feel that you're emerging from the shadow of Clark?
PHIL Well Helen has been leader of the Labour Party for 15 years.
PAUL A major presence.
PHIL Huge, huge, and she's been Prime Minister and a dominant figure in New Zealand politics for nine years, so yes her performance her legacy is going to be around for a long time, but I think she's been very helpful in terms of the passing over of the leadership, we had a unanimous decision in caucus. We start the new Labour Party in Opposition with a strong degree of unity, we start with a rejuvenated party, some 13 new MPs, they're able, they're fresh, they're enthusiastic, and we've got a core of people who have shown their ability and their experience in government, I think it's a good mixture.
PAUL What about being leader though, I mean is it different from what you thought it would be is there much more to do, is it much more difficult than you thought it was going to be?
PHIL Well I always thought the handling four or five portfolios in government was quite challenging, when you're leader of a party you're handling 25 portfolios so it is more challenging, but I relish that.
PAUL But the key thing about the leader is once you could be kind of the tradesman minister and you worked very hard and very efficiently in the portfolios I know, but suddenly you're the man who has to communicate that vision thing don't you?
PHIL Yes, no it is quite a different job from being a minister. New Zealanders know me as a longstanding minister, they think I did a pretty good job, capable competent in doing that but I have to develop the different dimensions that leadership requires, so that is my personal challenge over the months and the years ahead.
PAUL So what is your vision for New Zealand actually?
PHIL Well my vision for New Zealand is it starts with a decent society affairs society, I grew up on my grandmother's knee, her husband a war veteran from the first war died in 1934 right in the middle of the Depression, they lost their job, they lost their home, for me Labour was about a decent society that looks after all of its people, that treats people fairly that treats people with dignity and respect, so that's the core of my political beliefs, and that could well become very relevant again in the next few months as more New Zealanders the Treasury say another 60,000 New Zealanders lose their jobs, people lose their homes and so on. But it's about more than that, as Minister of Trade it was about having an economy that was innovative, efficient, competitive in the world. As Foreign Minister it was about being proud of your national identity, not kowtowing to any other country but standing up for the things that you believe in, believing that New Zealand is a country of 4.3 million people can still make a difference, and we did, and finally I think it's about the environment, a sustainable environment, living up to that brand of clean green 100% pure New Zealand.
PAUL All very good Mr Goff, but a recent poll showed, you've been around what in parliament since 1981, you've been prominent in many portfolios as you say over a long time, but a recent poll showed half the country, half the country doesn't know that you're the leader of the Labour Party, why do you think that is?
PHIL Well because I think of the predominant influence of Helen over that period of time but we do two sets of polling, one set of polling says do you approve or disapprove of the Prime Minister in his role, the Leader of the Opposition in his role, I get good positive approval rates on the performance of the task. In terms of the direct comparison who would be the better Prime Minister, of course the person that's just been elected, bringing his party into government at the focus of the media at the moment is going to be ahead.
PAUL I just find it extraordinary you've been around and prominent on television screens in our homes, around the country, in government for so long, half the country did not recently know you were the leader of the Labour Party.
PHIL Well I can tell you as I go round the streets plenty of people know exactly who I am and what I'm doing.
PAUL Is it possible they don't know because they don't find you interesting?
PHIL Well I've gotta develop the other dimensions, when you're a Cabinet Minister you're not competing with the Prime Minister in fact you're very careful not to compete with the Prime Minister and in the new role I have to develop all of the dimensions so that people know me as an individual, what I am, what makes me tick, where I come from.
PAUL Or is the truth that you are part of the gone generation, you are one of the faces the country tired of and threw out in the last election, is that why they're not interested.
PHIL Well I think the reason that the caucus selected me as Leader of the Labour Party was because they thought I had the competency the capability of doing that and they agreed on that unanimously. I need to build on that, I need to reach out of New Zealanders I need to understand what is in the mind of a whole cross section of New Zealanders, Labour supporters certainly, and I've been doing a lot of work with the Labour Party but also middle New Zealand, getting to know them, listening to them, learning from them and responding to their needs.
PAUL And having gone around as you say listening to middle New Zealand how will the Phil Goff Labour Party be different from the Helen Clark Labour Party, is there a defining difference?
PHIL Well I think in terms of principles and values the Labour Party has a brand and will maintain that, you don't sacrifice your principles or your values you maintain them, but what you do in terms of your policies is that you adapt your policies to a changing environment in which you live, if you didn't do that you'd be a dinosaur, so we'll be looking at Opposition as an opportunity to go out that to develop the new policies that we think suit the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we'll be listening to people, we'll be building our policies and we'll be acting in the constitutional role of an opposition which is to hold the government to account...
PAUL Let's get to the nitty gritty what policies do you think will have to change, for example can I ask you about smacking, for example should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
PHIL Well my answer to that is no it shouldn't be a criminal offence or we should not have people following up and prosecuting parents for a smack in that context, but remember 110 out of a 122 MPs voted for that legislation including every member of the National Party.
PAUL Why did Labour get the blame for it?
PHIL Oh because we were in government notwithstanding the fact that it was a Green bill and the National Party supported it, that was one of the ironies I guess of the time.
PAUL Has it been told to you that the party became a bit too urban feminist liberal?
PHIL No, there was a factor about nanny state but you know people said - a lot of people didn't like the anti smacking legislation they didn't like the thought that old fashioned light bulbs would go out of production, off the shop shelves, they were worried that you might be restrained in the amount of water that you use in the shower. That's what I said before the little things irritated people in that way, I think there are other ways of doing it, I think we'd stand by all of our conservation measures and environmental measures but you've gotta take the country with you, but remember this - I remember in 2000 when we had the anti smoking legislation and the National Party in 2002 ran on a platform that they would repeal the anti smoking legislation in public places. The country decided that that was not the New Zealand future they wanted so the environment changes, when you lead you do need to lead both in government and in opposition but you need to make sure that people are following you.
PAUL Yes because you lost working class New Zealand didn't you, I mean you lost the West of Auckland you lost South Auckland, you lost the provinces.
PHIL We lost some of it, look my electorate in Mt Roskill is working class New Zealand, I won't with a majority of six and a half thousand.
PAUL Yes but Labour came in with the second lowest numbers since 1935.
PHIL Yeah look everybody knows and you know Paul that when a government has been in office for three terms people at that point are saying it's time for a change and they wanted a change they got a change that's appropriate, it's a democracy, now we build back from there.
PAUL I spose one of the questions people around the country ask too is whether you're the stopgap leader because you are one of the class of 1981, one of the faces that was rejected in the last election, and I wonder about you as Leader, you're a very nice guy, you're a nice man, you're a very hard worker, I know that I've seen you working on a plane up to Beijing once, but do you have that ruthless little bit of darkness which political leaders seem to need, successful ones.
PHIL Well I don't know about darkness, that's not something that I've ever sought, am I able to make the hard decisions yes I've done so consistently for 15 years as a Cabinet Minister and I've done that without I think ever coming into the public scene as having made the wrong decisions or not being decisive.
PAUL You've never had to be the leader you've never had to be the person who actually had to somehow magically ....
PAUL Yes, well have you got it?
PHIL Well I wouldn't be running for this position Paul if I didn't think I had it.
PAUL Are you ruthless?
PHIL I'm prepared to make the hard decisions and sometimes those decisions are difficult, they're awkward they hurt people, but if they have to be made I'll make them.
PAUL Are you the stopgap leader, are you expecting somebody to come along and say Phil it's time to go?
PHIL No, no, I'll be there as Leader of the Labour Party as long as I'm the best performing MP to do that job and I intend to work at making sure I do that.
PAUL The Greens have signed up with the Nats, Matt McCarten made this point, the Greens have now done a little deal with the Nats on a couple of things, the Greens are now part of the government process, now does Labour it seems out on the fringe, marginalised to you think?
PHIL Well I don't mind the Labour Party being seen as the key opposition to the government, of course we are, we always will be, but just remember this, before the last elections the Greens made a decision, they went through a checklist of 14 different areas, on all but one of them they said that Labour was the party that was more pro environment than National. Yes they've done a deal, I don't mind them doing that, we do a deal with the National Party from time to time, we're working on the Emissions Trading Scheme trying to counteract the influence, the right wing influence of ACT to say this country needs an Emissions Trading Scheme we will work with the government to get the best scheme that we can for the benefit of the New Zealand environment and what we need to do in this area. You make deals in politics all the time, the Maori Party have a deal with the National government but sooner or later people in the Maori electorate will say what has this done in terms of Maori jobs, what has this done in terms of income tax cuts for the predominance of Maori families who are on low incomes. What has this done about job security given that you can be sacked without any good reason being given in 90 days, so people will make a judgement in two and a half years time about whether those deals have worked in favour of their constituencies.
PAUL Do you think your answers are too long?
PHIL Probably, but you invite them.
PAUL Super City do you like the scheme that they've come up with?
PHIL I support strong government across Auckland, Auckland wide government.
PAUL A single government?
PHIL A single city across Auckland, if you want to tackle the big regional problems, transport, environment, water, those sort of things have to be done at that level. Do I like what the National government has come up with, no. There's a couple of reasons for that, firstly I believe in a ward system, every area needs fair and balanced representation.
PAUL Well there would be 12.
PHIL You have 12 but you have eight at large and they will hold the balance of power and if you elect people at large across an electorate of 850,000 you'll get the great and the wealthy, they'll be the people that can reach out and win those electorates, you will permanently bias Auckland towards the affluent suburbs, not across Auckland.
PAUL Okay so you don't want the at large councillors. What about Maori seats, big sticking point with Dr Pita Sharples, what do you think of that?
PHIL Well I think the Royal Commission made those recommendations, they spent 18 months to come up with those recommendations, they've been scrapped without any consultation at all, our first view is that at least should be discussed, is it the right thing to do, I'll reserve my judgement on that, but to scrap it without listening to people, without consulting with people without following up, the National Party pledge at the last election Paul was that after the Royal Commission had come out with its findings there'd be full consultation, there hasn't been, in ten days they've made what the Herald called spectacular changes and without a scrap of consultation.
PAUL What about the Maori seats, take a stand, there's 160,000 in Auckland shouldn't they be able to campaign on their own don't you think?
PHIL Well that's the Royal Commission's argument for it, I've got an open mind on that, what I'm saying at this stage is that at least it should have been consulted on, it shouldn't have been scrapped without any consultation.
PAUL We've had consultation going on for years and years and years, we've had a royal commissions ....
PHIL Not about that Paul - to be fair, not about that.
PAUL Right, so they're wrong to scrap the Maori seats without consultation?
PHIL Look I think that they needed to go back not only on the Maori seats but the major changes that they made to talk to the opinion leaders in Auckland, to reach out to the constituency, yes we want to do it with reasonable haste, but don't do it so fast that you risk getting it wrong, and don't do it so fast that New Zealanders done - Aucklanders don't have a sense of ownership about what you're proposing.
PAUL What do you think, having a look at him, what do you think of John Key, what are his strengths.
PHIL Oh John's a very nice guy, I think his strength is that he comes across as a middle New Zealander, he comes across as somebody that people can relate to as a human being, I think that's good for him, what are his weaknesses, I think that his weaknesses are that the policies that's he's pursuing on the advice of Crosby Textor are not what he actually believes, and you can see that for the things that John Key said before he became leader compared to what he's saying now he's the leader, whether it's Iraq or whether it's a range of different issues, he used to push the party down a right wing path, he's been told that that's not good you can never win middle New Zealand that way, he's created a new face but is that the reality of what underlies the National Party and John Key. The electorate will get to see that in course.
PAUL Exactly so, and of course you might have to come into the middle, bring the party back in the middle as well I spose.
PHIL Well I don't know that the party strayed from the middle on the key issues, I think that there are things that we can learn from our defeat, we have to do that because we were defeated. We'll go out, we'll talk to New Zealanders, we'll listen to them, we'll learn from them.
PAUL Thank you Mr Goff very much indeed for your time.