John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour leader on trial as well

Labour leader Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Labour Party will not be judged by what Darren Hughes has or has not done in his private life.

It will be judged according to how Phil Goff handles the crisis which has enveloped one of Labour's bright young rising stars and consequently the party as well.

Goff's management of the crisis has already begged a major question. Why did the Labour leader not immediately stand Hughes down from his roles as Labour's chief whip and education spokesman two weeks ago when the MP told him he was the subject of a police investigation?

Had he gone on the front foot then - rather than being forced to fess up yesterday in the face of rapidly snowballing media inquiries - Goff would have got some plaudits for being upfront.

He would also have got marks for consistency. Back in 2009, Goff launched into John Key for not immediately stripping Richard Worth of his ministerial warrant after the Prime Minister had been apprised of allegations of a sexual nature made against the then National MP.

Goff now risks being marked down for double standards. At his press conference yesterday, he said he had opted not to relieve Hughes of his shadow portfolio responsibilities because he had felt the complaint was "not relevant" to his ability to do his job.

That jars awkwardly with Goff having now granted Hughes leave from Parliament for the very reason that he cannot carry out his normal duties.

By not standing Hughes down immediately, Goff has also risked Labour looking as though it has been trying to hide the fact that the police have been investigating one of its senior MPs.

That investigation was always going to become public knowledge simply by virtue of the police having already interviewed a number of people in connection with the case. When it comes to politics, Wellington is a very small town.

Goff's political management accordingly starts to look misguided at best and downright stupid at worst.

Goff isn't stupid. He and his close advisers obviously weighed up the pluses of front-footing the problem.

However, a combination of legal and political advice is understood to have persuaded Goff not to take pre-emptive action and instead say nothing at all until the media found out what was going on.

The very serious nature of the allegations against Hughes has meant putting the party's wider interests temporarily on the backburner. For now, what is in Hughes' best interest is the paramount consideration.

That is because it is not only the MP's political future which hangs in the balance.

The investigation may yet come to nothing - another reason why Goff bided his time. Labour's lawyers, however, have advised him not to say or do anything which might jeopardise Hughes' case should the MP face criminal charges.

There is no room for playing politics. Goff is instead playing things very straight, in particular saying and doing nothing which might be interpreted (or misinterpreted) by a court or jury as trying to undermine the credibility of the complainant.

Likewise, Goff has been wary of saying or doing anything that might be interpreted as hindering the police investigation.

Knowing the media would be hunting for the complainant once the police investigation became public knowledge, Goff did not want to be seen to be saying or doing anything which might lead to the complainant being identified.

Of course, that has since happened anyway. But Labour cannot be blamed for that.

In refusing to discuss the matter, Labour also hopes the intense media focus on Hughes will fade.

Some hope, even if Labour's opponents are unlikely to go anywhere near all this.

- NZ Herald

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