Phil Goff has two image problems. One is himself. The other is the party around him.
Goff’s personal disability this election year is his inescapable identification with the bygone Clark government, demoted to a 34 per cent vote in 2008. He was a senior minister: foreign affairs, defence, trade and justice.
And, while he is not chronologically old as party leaders go, he is politically old: MP for 27 years; minister for 15.
Super-agreeable John Key is younger in years and in politics, eight years in Parliament, two in government. He is still a fresh face.
Goff also has a lot of 1999-08 colleagues on his two top benches, as is usual after long period in office. Some are, as individual MPs, alive, active and aggressive — notably Annette King and Trevor Mallard. Some are smart and thoughtful and still young or youngish politically — notably David Parker, David Cunliffe and Charles Chauvel. But as a group they look like yesterday.
Goff’s need is to re-image himself and his party. That challenge starts today with his “state-of-the-nation” address. It will continue on Friday when, after a day-long caucus, he has one of his famous barbecues at his home — famous, or rather infamous, because one summer he was accused of plotting against Clark at a barbecue he put on for MP mates.
Goff’s dual need is to present a party deeply rethinking policy but also one scratching voter itches: to rebase policy on principle so that it is relevant in 2021 but also to get immediate traction in 2011 without looking like reheated 2000s fare.
Goff is in fact setting about both.
He has backed development of principles-based, forward-looking “framework” policy. King, for all her political age (close to Goff’s), has been foremost, rebasing social policy on a child-centred approach that aims to reduce inequalities, not just talk blandly of fairness.
Today Goff will draw on that to argue, in a speech centred on the economy, that optimising economic growth depends on maximising workforce skills and that depends to a large extent on all children getting a good start in life. Too many don’t and they are a drag on the economy.
Cunliffe has been scanning innovative and revisionist economic writing of international commentators. Stuart Nash has reshaped forestry policy. Chauvel has re-framed environment policy. There is a lot more going on. The party is not a political corpse.
But none of this is likely to penetrate the dense blue haze National and Key have smoked up between Labour and voters. Its value will be for when Labour gets into office, not as a means of getting there in 2011 — and in any case much work remains to be done.
So Goff has grabbed at matters of the moment: take GST off fruit and vegetables to ease inflation — but punters don’t seem to hold the GST surge against the government; Chinese wanting to buy dairy farms (shades of a past peril) — but Key read that yellow light fast and retreated; ructions among iwi and in the Maori party over the foreshore — but that will be sorted for better or worse within months.
Goff’s problem today is that he is not in the position of Don Brash in January 2004 who swung the polls with a one-nation speech exploiting disquiet about the beaches. Goff is in the position of Bill English, staring at looming defeat in January 2002.
So to the symbolism in Friday’s barbecue.
Goff has the opportunity to demote and promote in a reshuffle he plans before Parliament restarts on February 8.
Example: at No 18 is Grant Robertson, who got significant summer-break media coverage. At No 29 and No 34 are two with real promise: Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. All are young, attractive and the future. Shane Jones has done penance and learned that humility is a better h-word than hubris. Former Goff staffer David Shearer (No 41) has come on fast. Nash (No 37) has a good brain and a business background.
Example on other side: at No 4 and 5 are Ruth Dyson, getting on in political age, and top-ranked Maori Parekura Horomia, lacking the vigour of Jones, Nanaia Mahuta and Kelvin Davis.
Goff’s problem is that (unless there are retirements) the upside of that equation is easy to do but (apart from moving already-announced retirees to the bottom, which opens only middle spaces) the downside isn’t. Dyson is a former president, a woman and on the left and is peppering Tony Ryall on health “cuts” which one day will register (though probably not this term). Horomia’s Ngati Porou connections are invaluable. Goff’s personal authority is limited. Though there is no move to dump him pre-election, he can’t afford resentments.
And if he raises young risers, will they in any case be visible to voters through Key’s blue haze?
Well, the Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd hazes dispersed suddenly last year. A sudden, unpredictable upset in these volatile times could put Goff in the game.
But that is hope. Reality for now for decent, intelligent Goff is head-against-a-brick-wall. Throw another chop on the barbie.