Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Never-say-die Goff has plenty of guts

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Goff was correct to challenge the Prime Minister on saying he wouldn't raise GST. Photo / Natalie Slade
Goff was correct to challenge the Prime Minister on saying he wouldn't raise GST. Photo / Natalie Slade

It's stating the bleeding obvious that Phil Goff and the Labour Party will need a miracle to get elected to the Treasury benches this month.

While commentators breathlessly examine the opinion polls and treat each one as new news, the fact is that the poll averages over the past three years show support for National, Labour and the Greens have stayed largely static.

The only question is whether we will vote to give National a mandate to rule alone, as polls consistently indicate.

It will almost be a surprise if we find on election night that we haven't let the National Party rule alone.

Although commentators are fixated on the gap between the two main parties, they completely overlook this more important issue. Before the first MMP election was held, its supporters and detractors all believed it would breathe life into third parties and clip the wings of National and Labour.

Initially this did happen. In the first three MMP elections - in 1996, 1999 and 2002 - the third parties won 38 per cent, 31 per cent and 38 per cent. In 2005 and 2008, they dropped to 20 per cent and 21 per cent. Now, even with six minor parties in Parliament, their combined average poll support this year - including the Greens - barely reaches 15 per cent. This election day we are on track to have the lowest support for third parties in 24 years.

New Zealanders seemed to like the balance smaller parties, under MMP, brought to Parliament but still want to use their vote to choose between two alternative governments led by either National or Labour.

Therefore the campaign contest between Phil Goff and John Key is as important as it was under the old first-past-the-post system.

Goff deserves respect for his leadership thus far because no one would have been able to lead Labour back in one parliamentary term to be competitive with National.

In addition to being up against the most likeable Prime Minster in a generation, Goff has had to contend with three national tragedies during which Key got all the airtime.

Throw in having to compete for attention when the whole country was obsessed with a six-week national orgy of rugby mania, and he shouldn't have a bolter's chance.

Key's biggest election challenge is in trying not to appear too smug.

In last week's leaders' debates, Goff acquitted himself well and his attack strategy was correct.

As any person who has had responsibility for leading others knows, it's easy to be the boss when things are going well. The test is how a leader performs under pressure.

Goff has taken everything the media (including me) and his opponents have thrown at him. Yet he still gets up every day and gives a gutsy performance. It says a lot about his character and toughness.

The phony outrage by some commentators criticising Goff for calling Key a liar over his flip-flop on GST exposes their political bias. Goff was right. Key did say he wouldn't raise GST. I think Key claiming that he had to break his promise because of changed economic conditions is, well, a fib.

Raising GST had less to do with the changed economic needs and more to do with ideology.

Taking money off poorer New Zealanders to give a tax cut to those on higher incomes, while pretending it was fiscally neutral, wasn't truthful.

We now know that in addition to having prices raised by 2.5 per cent, Key borrowed $1 billion to subsidise the tax cuts.

Key's broken promise is exactly something he should be called on. That's because he's making new promises, such as only selling minority shares in our public assets. Goff is asking if we can trust Key not to change his mind again once the election is over.

Because of the third-party vote demise, we may well be giving Key and his party complete power after election day.

The more Goff puts Key under pressure, the better it is for voters before we give the National Party a blank cheque.

Keep it up, Phil.

- Herald on Sunday

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