Phil Goff - the careful rebel

By Catherine Masters

Phil Goff with wife Mary. Photo / Natalie Slade
Phil Goff with wife Mary. Photo / Natalie Slade

The first in a two-part Weekend Herald series on the the life and times of the man who wants to be Prime Minister after this year's election.

Phil Goff is wearing gumboots and jeans with mud on them and wielding an axe.

The Labour Party leader is chopping wood and putting some sweat into a stubborn ring from the privets he felled on the 20-acre farm he and wife Mary own in Clevedon.

This piece has a knot running through it but he's not going to let that stop him. He chops and chops, splinters are flying and everyone takes a step back. This is him relaxing, jokes Mary - her husband is not one to sit around watching the TV.

Goff's work ethic is legendary and has been since he was little. When he's not staying late at Parliament devouring piles of paperwork and replying to letters from constituents, he's hard at work in Auckland.

And in Auckland, when he's not at functions or attending to other political matters, he's here, working the land with the wife he has been smitten with since she was a 15-year-old school-leaver and he an 18-year-old long-haired leftie university student who alarmed her mother.

We have talked to a range of people about Goff and common themes have emerged. People say he is honest and has integrity, that he is a loyal friend and a loving family man.

Some say he can be very funny and is warm but that when a camera is pointed at him he becomes stilted and speaks in soundbites, his natural persona smothered by the long-time professional politician who takes over. Often, the friends and peers we have spoken to say they wish the public could see the other side of him.

Out on the farm he seems a youthful 58, and when you meet his dad, Bruce, who still tries to fix fences at 90, it's apparent the hard-work gene runs in the family.

Bruce has arrived this Saturday morning, beetling along the road you can see from the farm. He comes every weekend for a bootful of wood and a free feed, though he can't swing an axe any more - you can't do anything at 90, the old man booms. Bruce is a bit deaf as well as blunt. He's a product of the hard days of the Depression and quite a character, though he is finally getting a little frail.

When told it's pretty good to still be driving at 90, he says "any fool can do that". Mary Goff says when she announced she was pregnant with the first of three children, Bruce said "any fool can do that" and she cracks up. Her husband, who she has already said doesn't really do romance, is more sensitive and was delighted at the news. Goff's interaction with his father goes a bit like this: "I said, you're a silly old bastard, yeah?" and his father grins back and says "that's exactly what I am".

There are a lot of jokes and sparring at the farm, though the Goffs have had a tough time the past few years. In 2006 big brother Warren, five years older than Goff, died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 58. A year later his nephew, American soldier Matthew Ferrara (older sister Linda's boy) was shot and killed in Afghanistan.

Then, only the next year his mum Elaine, adored by everyone, fell ill and died, leaving a huge gap in the family. These are not things Goff has worn on his sleeve, though perhaps low polling and the job of Leader of the Opposition up against a hugely popular Prime Minister has now encouraged more intimacy in a man known for keeping his private life just that.

During the morning Goff throws bundles of hay to the sheep from the quadbike, checks the steers and says hello to a new lamb, born very recently and still tinged with green, the afterbirth still hanging from the mother.

He reckons he loves watching the lambs frolicking like children at playschool and loves the little 13-year-old Jack Russell dog he named Jafa - Just Another F'ing Animal - who runs around sniffing the sheep poo and who sleeps in a warm coat on a bed of sheepskins on the porch: if you could see what he eats sometimes you wouldn't let him in the house either, the Labour leader jokes.

Goff tells his fair share of pet stories, like Cuddles the cat, notorious when alive for dragging rabbits home and also for stalking the children.

Then there's the one about Goldie, the "best horse I've ever had" who he let old friend Glenda Fryer (a former Auckland City labour councillor) ride during their university years - but when she fell off and broke her thumb Goff went to the check on the horse first. Like any farmer, though, there's a distinction between the pets and the farm animals.

Goff can sometimes be found shooting rabbits at dawn and the farm animals are sent to be killed. He has also worked in the freezing works, taking his first job there when he left home while still at school.

He'd had a row with his father (he says the other siblings left home in a similar manner) who wanted him to get a trade, and at 16 he found himself packing his bags. Mind you, he didn't leave home for any ordinary digs - he moved into the flat his brother Warren was sharing with Mike Moore, who was to become a Labour Prime Minister.

Despite the row with his dad, Goff, the third of four children, has fond memories of his upbringing. He grew up in urban Auckland in the 50s and 60s, first in Three Kings and then Papatoetoe, and then, when he was in his early teens, his dad bought 10 acres in Alfriston, a neighbouring suburb to where Goff's block is now.

They ran cows and sheep and had horses and Goff loved the farm life. Goff's dad Bruce is a big fan of horses (he once wanted to be a hurdles jockey) and motorbikes and Goff has inherited the love of both, though while he still has a motorbike he says he doesn't have the time to give horses the attention they need.

Life as a youngster was about some play, a lot of hard work and, as he got older, sometimes heated political debate with his father and Warren. Dad Bruce set the chores and mum Elaine, described as a strong and loving woman, gave the hugs and bandaids. At his home, fire raging with wood from the farm, Bruce describes his second son as "a nice little fellow." Where older brother Warren was more likely pretending to do his homework but really listening to the Beatles, Goff was out getting his hands dirty and helping out. Goff's appetite for work astonishes even hard-grafter Bruce who says his son can "eat work". Goff in turn says Bruce was a great provider and though not rich the family never went without.

By going half shares with his own mother, Bruce was able to buy a traditional two-room bach with a bucket toilet at Orere Pt (at the top of the Firth of Thames) which they all squashed into and had long summers fishing, diving for mussels and taking the horses swimming.

Goff's baby sister Melanie, born 12 years after him, remembers having to be fast into the water to avoid being dunked by her big brothers. Bruce doesn't take any credit for his son's Labour leanings, though has always voted Labour, saying it was his mother Jessie who was the big early influence. Big sister Linda says from America that when still in England Jessie had marched with suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst - though Goff doesn't know this story.

Goff used to go to Jessie's home in Papatoetoe, cut her lawns and stay for dinner and she would tell him stories about her life and of living through the Depression. Though the occasional Tory pops up in the family history, a couple of generations ago there is a switch to the left.

Jessie was English and it wasn't until she came to New Zealand that she became staunchly Labour. Her own father was a Conservative and when Jessie married Bruce's father Eugene, who she met during World War I, she was considered to have married beneath her. When Eugene returned from the Somme, where he had been taken prisoner of war, he and Jessie decided to move to New Zealand for a better life, bringing three-month-old Bruce and his older brother Archie with them.

Another boy, John, was born here but was killed in Mesopotamia in World War II. Eugene died at 47 when Bruce was only 11 and Jessie couldn't afford the repayments on the house so in 1934, the year Eugene died, they were evicted. The Tory Government of the day didn't give a stuff about them, according to Bruce, and they were very poor.

Labour was the grand saviour for people like them and Jessie hero-worshipped Michael Joseph Savage, elected in 1935 and the country's first Labour Prime Minister.

Goff says his grandmother was a lovely old lady but tough, and describes with laughter how every election she would ring the National Party and get them to take her to the polls where she would take her time and then vote Labour. "She'd say those nice Labour people, they're much too busy to take me to the polls."

Goff's maternal grandmother also had a Conservative grandfather but he says most of her large family became gold-badge wearing members of the Labour Party. Another family story is that his maternal grandmother and her sister were abandoned on a train in Central Otago by their mother, though the reason why is now lost in time.

After Bruce met Elaine, at a dance in Papakura during World War II, the Labour connections continued when the first two of their children, Warren and Linda, were delivered by former Prime Minister David Lange's father.

When we call Linda in America, her husband Mario Ferrara answers the phone - she is in Hawaii looking after another soldier son who has undergone surgery. Mario is a Republican and has had many a fun political argument with Goff who he says is "a great guy." Mario was living in New Zealand when he met Linda and remembers Goff as a rosy-faced kid in gumboots following his dad around in the paddocks.

When we reached Linda in Hawaii she says she can't think of any bad stories about her little brother and remembers him helping pick up apples for an elderly war veteran neighbour in Three Kings who had a wooden leg. She was the one who did the teasing and recalls that once when she pulled the rug out from under him and he cut his head open on her bed, Elaine made her go and watch him have his head stitched up as punishment.

Elaine was enormously proud of Goff and used to door-knock for him during election campaigns - as have most of the family.

Goff's School years also seem pretty exemplary and it was through his teachers that he started to really think about New Zealand and its history.

One of the first books he read was The Quest for Security in New Zealand by William Ball Sutch, an economist and intellectual.

Here he learned more about the Depressions of the 1890s, the development of the trade unions and the Depression of the 1930s, information which knitted with the stories his father and grandmother had told him. Former teachers remember him with fondness and amusement, and as a top student.

He was a bright and interested child, impressing even at Three Kings Primary School with a thirst for knowledge which continued through his years at Papatoetoe High School - back then the equivalent of a decile two or three school - and where he gained School Certificate marks in the 80s and 90s. Hugh Richards taught him French at Papatoetoe High and recalls a bubbly boy never short of a word to say and popular with his rugby mates. Even in the fourth form he was very much "a Labour man"; all Richards had to do was say something negative about the Labour Party and Goff would take over the lesson.

Ron Burrow, his Social Studies teacher through to Form 6 remembers if someone asked a curly question Burrow couldn't quite answer other students would call out "just ask Phil".

"It was great, you see... he was almost like another teacher."

In his last year at school, when Goff had moved into the flat with brother Warren and Mike Moore, he started to become active in Labour Youth. The story goes that Mike Moore (who said as New Zealand's Ambassador to the United States that it was inappropriate for him to talk to us) put an ad in the South Auckland Courier wanting to set up a youth branch of the Labour Party, and Warren was the only one who turned up.

The year was 1969, Goff recalls, because he worked on his first election campaign that year, when Roger Douglas stood for the first time in Manukau and Mike Moore was his campaign manager. (Later, Goff became national chairman of the party's youth movement, and was appointed to the Labour Party general executive as the youth section representative.

By 1976, in his final years at university, he had cranked up his attacks on the National Party. A story in the files cites a confidential letter to Labour youth branches in which he called for "anti-parasite" action against the commercial leeches along with "total opposition to speculation, profiteering, unearned income" - and he also called for discussions about a capital gains tax.)

Moore and Warren hit it off and Warren organised Moore's campaigns in 1972, 1975 and 1978, and then organised Goff's when he stood for Roskill in 1981. What Goff remembers of those days are not boozy parties but trying to earn enough money to live on. He started at the Westfield freezing works at the end of his 5th form year and continued for seven seasons through his university years until he was employed as a junior lecturer while doing his masters degree.

Rod Pascoe, a friend from the Labour Youth days, who became a press secretary for Goff for a time, said there were parties at the flat and that Jim Cairns, Australian deputy Prime Minister of the Whitlam Government, was at one.

Labour Youth members were always mingling with MPs and used to send a tonne of remits to party conferences challenging the status quo. Pascoe says that you have to remember these were intensely political years and a time of great change - there were gay rights, women's rights, civil rights, and, of course, the Vietnam War was on.

"I mean, it just sounds so vomit-making to talk as though there was no time for fun but people were dying in their hundreds every bloody week and it had to be stopped and New Zealand was involved."

Labour Youth was determined to get the country out of the war and they did have influence. In 1972 the new Labour Government abandoned conscription the night they were elected. Pascoe's enduring friendship with Goff developed in Labour Youth but Goff was also part of an extremely bright crop of young people who were going to Auckland University.

Some we have spoken to say they were lucky because there was so much to protest about: Springbok tours and apartheid, French nuclear testing in the Pacific, the Vietnam War; Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara was still influential in the 60s and in the 70s there was the American-backed coup in Chile to worry about.

When Goff started university the Political Studies department had not long been set up by the late Professor Bob Chapman, mentor to many an aspiring politician. Chapman was Labour, but encouraged political ambition no matter the leaning and for people to look at the bigger picture and join a political party to have real influence.

The Political Studies department produced many MPs, particularly for Labour, such as former Prime Minister Helen Clark and Richard Northey who tutored Goff. But there were Conservative MPs too - Murray McCully was around and later Ross Meurant would in turn be tutored by Goff. Former policeman Meurant would sit in class with short back and sides while Goff wore a ponytail, corduroy jacket and academic glasses. They clashed at protests but in the classroom Goff was fair and Meurant says he never felt penalised by their different political views - though in Parliament, in later years, Goff would tear him apart in the bearpit.

Goff was an A student at university, gaining a masters degree with first class honours in politics and law, and in 1973 he won the Butterworth Law Prize and was senior scholar. But though he did extremely well academically, there are those who say he didn't shine over anyone else. Former Alliance and Progressive MP Matt Robson was around at that time and describes Goff as "a careful rebel".

Robson says there were many groups to join at university - socialists, Marxists, anarchists, Maoists, but Goff wasn't in those and though on committees such as the Vietnam mobilisation committee, he was always more interested in the Labour Party and was developing a leadership role in Young Labour. He would turn up at mobilisation meetings with his long hair, leather jacket and motorcycle boots "looking like he'd just come out of a spitfire, so you knew he was there".

While he clearly had ability, he wasn't considered a charismatic figure of the ilk of the young Tim Shadbolt who was always getting arrested at protests.

Another former peer, who does not want to be named, says Goff was strong on social justice and trade unions but where she was very much into feminism she thought he, and some of the other men around, were a bit conservative, or at least quiet, when it came to women's rights and issues such as abortion. Goff had a following, though. Former Labour Party President Mike Williams says he found him inspiring and remembers him getting up at a demonstration and saying "the first thing we've got to do is get rid of the bloody Government".

Goff and his group were serious students who were at university to change the world and not muck around smoking pot (at the farm he dodges the pot question, sticking to Helen Clark's line "it was the 60s"). Glenda Fryer says a group of them would have dinner together and at about 7pm Goff would race off to his cleaning job then come back to university and study. "We were the sort of people who were still in the library at 11pm when it closed so our whole lives revolved around university and the study."

She recalls that after the flat, Goff bought a house in Papatoetoe and would often be in the garden where there were fruit trees and grape vines. This was grandmother Jessie's old house which Goff bought from his uncle for $13,000, paid for by the freezing works and other jobs and by taking in student flatmates.

He remembers plenty of parties there and others talk of regular trips to the pub and sometimes the "Big I," - the Intercontinental Hotel, said to be a favourite of South Australian Premier Mike Rann, a one-time editor of student magazine Craccum and still a close friend of Goff's. Rann was busy in protest groups and Goff with the Labour Party but he thinks it was 1972 when Goff said to him,"Mike, you're doing all this good work but why don't you come and help change a government?"

So Rann became involved in Mike Moore's campaign for the seat of Eden in the year Moore became the youngest MP in New Zealand history. After university, Goff and Mary got married and headed abroad, meeting up with Glenda Fryer and setting off on a three-month trip through Europe.

They bought an old blue Kombi van and stocked up with cans of food and cassette tapes, though Blondie's Parallel Lines is the only one Fryer can remember. Even then, the young idealists mixed exploring the world with politics - they went to a conference, she thinks in Strasbourg, were guests of Yugoslavian Socialist Youth and spent some time with Romanian Labour Youth.

Fryer remembers Goff being detained by the police a couple of times, perhaps because of his long hair, though Mary thinks it was because he'd been taking photos of a police station; and at the East German border they had to wait eight hours because Goff had a biography of Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister.

On their return Goff had a short stint with the Insurance Workers Union then headed into Parliament. He retains friends such as Rod Pascoe who says old mates are incredibly loyal to Goff because he's "just first class" and very loyal himself.

When asked about that loyalty, people tend to bring up his old friend from school and university, Labour stalwart Brent Lewis who committed suicide. Goff and Mary took Lewis in when he was ill, gave him money and fed him.

Another friend, David Shearer, who is in Parliament now, says he became Goff's adviser when Goff was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and was relieved to find that after so many years in politics Goff was still driven by principle.

Goff has vulnerabilities, of course, and in his lounge at the farm he opened up about the time his daughter Sara was caught with ecstasy in Australia. He has always been fiercely protective of his family's privacy and was distraught that Sara was targeted in the media just because she was his daughter.

If there was ever a time he contemplated not staying on in politics, he says, that was it. "She didn't deserve that sort of attention or treatment and you know she basically decided at that point she was out of here." Sara now works as a policy manager for a firm in Britain. Goff is proud of her and of his other children, sons Kristopher, an electrician, and Kieran who is in refrigeration, and happy that the boys have trades which come in handy with the electrics at the farm. He says all of his children went to local Papakura High School and not somewhere private because he wanted them to have the same chances as anyone else in the community.

None of them like the limelight but Goff says the boys will be putting up hoardings and helping out in the coming election campaign, as will Mary. To Goff his wife Mary is Mare, Lou (as in the song Mary Lou), doll and darl. The Mangere girl has been his support and confidante since they met as youngsters at his flat, where the young blonde took his eye and she liked the way he talked.

He reckons he said to her "hey, come for a ride on my motorbike" and it worked. They began going out in 1971 then lived together - Mary typed up his whopping 488-page thesis on Labour and the unions and worked as a secretary to help support them - and they married in 1979. She has long accepted that politics is not a job but a lifestyle for Goff and she will be there in the background whatever happens in November.

Outside, Goff continues his assault on the knotty bit of wood. He delivers a final blow and wipes his face, the wood conquered.

Is this therapy too? He grins but won't say whose head he imagined on the block.

"I only do it metaphorically."

"You bastard," he says to the wood.

At the end of our visit he asks Mary what she would like to do before they go to the rugby - go door-knocking with him?

8 things you didn't know about Phil Goff

1 He and wife Mary are rowdy rugby supporters and sometimes shout at the ref

2 Was bought up Catholic and thinks he has strong Judeo-Christian ethics but doesn't believe in an afterlife

3 Got his eyes lasered because one time when he was trying to crutch a ewe his glasses kept slipping off his face from the sweat

4 Reckons he wore his hair long after he left home because his father used to cut it and every time he made a mistake the hair would get shorter

5 Doesn't like injections, is a fainter, but has learned the trick of lying down - you can't faint that way

6 Went to pony club as a youth

7 His niece Simone played soccer for New Zealand

8 Older brother Warren was a PSA delegate for the Post Office but when laid off used the money to set up the Telelink call centre and became wealthy

The series

The Phil Goff story is based on interviews by Catherine Masters, Claire Trevett and Geoff Cumming with 40 people who knew and worked with him over the years including childhood friends and teachers as well as political colleagues and opponents.

In part 2 next week Claire Trevett tells of the many political lives of Phil Goff, from a student politician calling on all senior MPs to resign, to a Rogernome and then one of the most senior ministers of the Clark years. She also gauges his views on moral issues including abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

- NZ Herald

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