Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Goff's career follows Labour's swings to the left, right, left

Goff responds to John Key's State of the Nation speech in Parliament last February. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Goff responds to John Key's State of the Nation speech in Parliament last February. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In the second and final part of our biography of the man who aspires to be the next Prime Minister, Claire Trevett picks up Phil Goff's life story from the moment he stepped on the national political stage. Here she charts the many twists and turns of his political career which included prominent roles in the Lange Government of the 1980s and in the 1999-2008 Clark era.

There is a photo of Phil Goff in 1981, looking off to the side with a smile on his face that is half delighted surprise and half rueful apology.

It was taken at the moment he heard he had won Labour's selection for the Roskill electorate.

He had helped his old flatmate and friend Mike Moore out on his earlier campaigns and had gone for the selection himself this time round on Moore's urging, but more as a practice run for the future.

He hadn't expected to be selected, nor did he really want to be at that stage - hence the apology in that smile.

"I'm looking sideways at [his wife] Mary thinking 'Shit, that wasn't meant to happen'."

Although he had the backing of Moore and Michael Bassett, Goff's former electorate chair John Lindley, now an Act supporter, recalled Helen Clark and then Labour president Jim Anderton were both on the panel and supported a different candidate in the field which included Ken Hastings, Norman Kingsbury, George Hawkins and Wayne Mapp, now a National MP.

The two local representatives - including Lindley - changed their support to Goff partly based on his strong speech. It prompted a stand-off between the local representatives and the party representatives that went on until 3am. The locals won and Lindley says he never regretted pushing Goff forward.

Goff, then 28, hadn't expected to get selected. This was partly because he was fresh out of Labour Youth, during which time he had made several speeches considered "radical" by the hierarchy including on legalisation of marijuana and calls for a capital gains tax. At one of the Party's conferences he had also called on half of caucus to resign because they'd been there too long.

Lindley recalls the incident.

"Goff said 'There's too many old people in the party'. Bob Tizard stood up and said 'Name one' and Goff said 'You, Bob'."

Goff was then working for the Insurance Workers' Union and studying part time toward a law degree. He quit his job and the studies and moved to Parliament.

In news articles at the time about the new MP, he spoke about his support of free tertiary education, the equitable distribution of wealth, the horrors of high interest rates and his opposition to a free market economy.

He also noted that he had initially worried about his youthfulness, but it would break the mould of "reasonably tired ageing men presenting a particular perspective".

Socialist to Rogernome

Given Goff's views from those early years, onlookers could be forgiven for their puzzlement at what was to follow.

Goff's first term in Cabinet was at the power centre of Rogernomics and he was a strong advocate of many of the reforms. By the 2000s he was a key figure in another government, this time more strongly affixed to socialism, but his antipathy for the free market economy had dissipated to the extent that he now cites the free trade agreement with China as one of his greatest ministerial achievements.

Then - because he had long been considered the de facto leader of Labour's right - after he was made its leader in 2009, those expecting a step to the right were surprised when Goff went in the opposite direction instead.

OPPOSITION IS the best time for a backbench MP to enter Parliament and Goff made the most of it, putting up two members' bills in his first year, one to set up a student work scheme and another to ban liquor advertising.

Midway through he was rewarded with the shadow housing portfolio, raising eyebrows because it was considered a critical role in Labour and he was a first termer.

In 1984, aged 31, Goff was made a minister in just his second term, becoming the youngest Cabinet minister. Labour's caucus elects Cabinet, and he was the 18th person elected, though the prime minister of the time, David Lange, ranked him 20th.

It was partly reward for his efforts in his first term where he had made a good fist of his role as housing spokesman. It also helped that his friendship with Mike Moore meant he was taken under the wing of the all-powerful Auckland circle of Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas, and Richard Prebble. The grouping had been together for many years and they now had a younger brother.

Goff remembers the first Cabinet meeting, when Treasury showed the new Government the nation's books.

"I remember just having that sinking feeling: there's no way on God's earth with this situation that we're going to be able to be re-elected."

As housing minister he set about his work. He set up the Residential Tenancies Tribunal, started rebuilding state housing stock and ended Muldoon's rent freeze, including compensation for those who could not offer the consequent hikes estimated at about 35 per cent.

There were home ownership schemes for state house tenants and aspiring first home buyers, the most inventive being the "sweat equity" scheme, allowing young couples to first rent and then buy on favourable terms run-down homes in return for renovating them. Compared to the economic reforms, these were more traditional Labour policies and Sir Roger Douglas says now he didn't mind "as long as it didn't cost too much".

Things were more difficult in Goff's employment portfolio. Unemployment soared as Think Big projects were dismantled, wage freezes lifted and state assets sold off. The newest chair of Labour Youth was one Charles Chauvel, now an MP, who stood at conference and told Goff to take some action or resign.

But Goff was largely considered effective and was also popular with the public in polls at the time, ranking as the second most effective Cabinet minister after Moore.

Michael Bassett says Goff was "brimful of ideas" as well as being a strong advocate of the introduction of GST. He was clearly an "up-and-comer".

"Lange himself said to me in 1987 he expected Phil Goff to succeed him. If Lange had been able to stay another six or seven years from 1987, that was by no means an unreasonable expectation. I think a lot of people thought of Phil as a coming man."

Others also recall Goff as a convincing salesman of the Rogernomics reforms. MP Maryan Street was then involved with the party and said it was Goff who persuaded the Service and Food Workers' Union that GST was a good thing because it would raise more money to be used in health and education.

It was the vote of that union which later carried the GST motion at Labour's conference. Similarly, he managed to sell his student loan scheme to party members opposed to it. "He managed to persuade everybody that this was going to be the reincarnation of Michael Joseph Savage".

Goff took over from David Lange as education minister and by 1989 - as the dream was collapsing around them - the former protester found the tables had turned. The teachers' unions were unhappy about plans for bulk funding of teacher salaries as part of Tomorrow's Schools- an aspect Goff later removed from the legislation Lange had drawn up.

Goff's moves to introduce a student loan scheme (later canned because the banks would not take part) and charge university fees of $1250 had not gone down well among students used to free tertiary education. Goff's argument that it was the only way to prevent capping student numbers fell on deaf ears.

Goff emerged from opening the Hunter Building at Victoria University in March 1989 to find students lying on the ground all around his car. He walked back to Parliament, trailed the whole way by students chanting "Phil Goff F*** Off" - led by the then Victoria University Students' Association president Andrew Little.

At the time he dismissed the protesters, saying he was "not the least bit impressed by that style of demonstrative politics".

He laughs now, saying he became the first minister of education to lead a protest on Parliament.

Sir Roger Douglas said Goff was not part of the economic team, but an effective advocate. "I would have described him as a strong supporter, but I'm not saying anyone agreed with 100 per cent of it. That doesn't happen."

Those days have repeatedly come back to haunt Goff - state asset sales, high unemployment, no exemptions to GST, student loans - the National Party has reams of quotes by Goff about each, all of which are polar opposites to Labour's stance now.

Questioning about the apparent contradiction is the one point during two lengthy interviews spanning four hours when Goff becomes terse, saying he does not want to get "bogged down in the 80s".

"I got things wrong, but life is a learning process."

Goff uses the same reasoning he used when he first entered Parliament to explain why his views were no longer those he held in Youth Labour - that by and large his approach, rather than his belief in social justice had changed.

He is not ashamed of those years, but now believes the two things they got wrong were the state asset sales and the flat tax proposal, which Lange unilaterally pulled the pin on, prompting his fall from the leadership.

Others from that era find it harder to reconcile the two Goffs.

Michael Bassett said Goff was one of the staunchest in arguing against exemptions on GST and a "devoted Rogernome".

"The irony was that since 1990 when the party got taken over by a bunch of people who believed otherwise, Phil had to do a double flip. That, in my view, has been the source of his biggest problem. He's less than credible to the people who know the first Phil Goff."

A member of Labour's caucus in the 1980s, United Future leader Peter Dunne gave Goff credit for his ability to present a "good coherent argument" in the face of his political changes.

"But Phil's changed every time the wind has changed really in the Labour Party."

Road to redemption

In 1990, Goff was awarded what he likes to call "a sabbatical", courtesy of the voters.

The Labour caucus was slashed in half to 29 seats as voters retaliated against Rogernomics, the stock market crash, and the divisions that beset the party and almost destroyed it.

Goff was one of the casualties. He was voted out - something Lindley attributes mainly to the nationwide swing against Labour, Goff's education reforms but also to more local issues.

Roskill was a Bible belt electorate and Goff's support for homosexual law reforms in 1989 had not gone down well. Another factor was his decision to move out to Clevedon - he put in an offer on the property just before the election and was sprung by his opponent, National candidate Gilbert Myles, who was a friend of the real estate agent.

"[National] went round changing his hoardings by crossing out the G in Goff and adding 'to Clevedon' so it read 'Phil off to Clevedon'," Lindley recalls.

Goff says, in hindsight, that the years out of Parliament were not a bad thing.

But when he returned to Parliament in 1993, the alliances which had previously served him well were in tatters. The public were still angry with Labour: one campaigner recalled door-knocking in 1993 in state house areas - usually Labour's warmest welcome - and having doors slammed in his face.

The rejection of Rogernomics, the absence in the 1990-1993 term of himself and several others - Jim Sutton, Annette King - and Clark's takeover from Mike Moore just weeks after the 1993 election had put the left in ascendancy. One MP from that time said Goff was initially received back with some suspicion.

"Phil, more than the others, was seen as someone who'd been a strong supporter of the policy line in the 80s so the question was 'Times change, people change, will he change?"'

Goff made his way through that term by hard work, mounting scandal after embarrassing scandal against the National Government.

He regularly made the news - he made public Neil Pugmire's warnings about the risk of releasing some mental health patients into the community. He introduced a bill to protect whistle-blowers, and made several hits on public spending: the makeover of a defence commander's house at Ohakea, the cost of painting the Waitangi flagpole and ceremonial barge; he spoke against name suppression of a sex offender at a private school, earning himself a rebuke from the Government for criticising the judiciary.

By 1996, Labour's polling was dire. Clark was polling at below 5 per cent and Labour was at 13 per cent. Adding it to it was the looming MMP election, leaving MPs scrapping over the much reduced number of electorate seats.

Much of Goff's Roskill electorate had been absorbed into Clark's new Owairaka electorate, which Clark claimed by virtue of seniority. There was a short stand-off with Jonathan Hunt over the new New Lynn seat before Hunt agreed to stand on the list only.

There was still factionalism in the party - and Goff remained aligned with Mike Moore, eventually taking the role of leader of the "right" from him.

It was at this time of uncertainty for Goff that the Act Party went to him, asking him to leave Labour and become their new leader, taking over from Douglas.

Douglas said Goff was "highly intelligent, an extremely hard worker". He said Goff discussed the proposal with them, but rejected it.

"It would have been me who was one of those who regarded him highly enough to have done that. But it's a pretty big step to go from being one of the top three or four in an established party to doing something as outrageous as I was suggesting. But you never know your luck in a big city."

United had also gone to Goff at the time, and were also rejected. Peter Dunne says he was told Goff believed his personal prospects were better with Labour.

Goff himself said there was one reason he rejected both parties: "I said 'No, I'm Labour, that's where I am, that's what I believe in'."

Back in Labour, matters came to a head in May 1996 when Goff, Michael Cullen, Annette King, Jim Sutton and Koro Wetere confronted Clark to ask her to stand down.

Their concern went further than the likelihood of losing that election - the Alliance and NZ First were eroding Labour's vote so the bigger fear was that it would lose its position as the dominant centre-left party.

The meeting took place in the office which is now Goff's. There had been open talk about the need for a new leader since at least March, with potential successors named as Cullen, Goff or Jim Sutton.

Clark ally Judith Tizard said Clark found out the delegation was finally marshalling its troops to confront her from the "aunties in Ngaruawahia" after Wetere told them he had to leave for the meeting in Wellington. Clark mustered her own allies, including Steve Maharey and her adviser Heather Simpson.

It was a bid to reinstate Mike Moore as leader. Goff says it was never about him and others agree. He had in fact openly ruled himself out numerous times: "I didn't think I was ready to lead the Labour Party at that point and I wasn't prepared to be a candidate."

By all accounts, that meeting was short and civil. Clark began by inviting them to say what there were there for. Michael Cullen did much of the talking for the other side, telling her she could not save the party.

Annette King: "I have to say, I personally went to her with a really heavy heart. I sat there - and I'll never forget - with tears streaming down my face, saying 'You can't do it'."

Clark's side said she simply stared them down. One of the others says it is still a little known fact, although Clark probably did know it, that although Clark's confronters did have the numbers to vote Moore back in, they did not have the numbers to force a vote in the first place.

Goff was aware of the consequences of the failed mission on his own prospects. Although he and Clark got on reasonably well socially, those close to the two had noticed an early edge of competitiveness. Clark did not respond to a request for an interview for this piece.

However, those close to her say the sense of rivalry had begun during their student years. They were in different, but overlapping, social circles at university and Clark preceded Goff as president of Labour Youth.

Asked about their relationship at university, Goff says they got on well, but weren't close. She was a few years ahead.

"We got on fine. Not so much competitive - we just worked in different worlds. She had a different background. I was urban working class and she had a rural background."

There was a further frisson when Goff made it into Cabinet in 1984 while Clark did not - something one of Clark's friends said disappointed her and which her supporters put down to the patronage of Mike Moore.

Goff's support for Moore in Clark's 1993 leadership coup - and his further attempts to reinstate Moore against her only underscored that. From this point on, Goff's career was at the mercy of Clark.

Goff went back to Clark alone soon after that meeting to deliver his mea culpa, telling her he was a loyal member of Labour and would understand if she demoted him to the backbench.

Following her policy of ensuring all factions were in her senior team, she told him not to be so silly and kept him on the front bench, replacing her deputy David Caygill with Michael Cullen at the same time.

Although speculation about Goff's leadership plotting continued through to 1999 - including that summer's "barbecue at Phil's" for 13 colleagues - that day served to put an end to much of the in-fighting.

Goff says now that he and Clark handled it as "professionals".

"I never had any hard feelings against her and I think it's probably the same from her perspective. We've got on, respected each other's abilities and worked closely together. We've often had different perspectives on things, that's the nature of politics."

The party's list ranking committee was less forgiving than Clark. That year Goff withdrew from the list after discovering his ranking was well below his caucus ranking.

He says Clark told him years later she was not surprised the delegation had come to see her - she was just surprised it had taken so long.

When he is asked at this point whether he is surprised he hasn't faced a similar delegation, he laughs. "No, I'm not. When I leave this position it will be of my own volition."

In government

Goff was not expecting the Foreign Affairs portfolio when Labour entered government in 1999. However, it came as no surprise to Clark supporters. There had been no real ructions since 1996, but Clark's camp was still wary of "rumblings" as one described it.

The concern was not only about Goff's own ambitions. There was a wide opinion that he was more than capable for the job and would be the first port of call should others decide to change the leadership.

Foreign Affairs ensured Goff was in different time zones for much of the time. He was also given a hefty second portfolio of justice - partly because Labour wanted to allay concerns it was soft on crime and Goff's time as the justice spokesman in Opposition had given him a hard-line image. It also ensured Goff would be busy when he was at home.

As it transpired, they needn't have worried - one of those keeping a close eye on him said there was not a peep of dissent, even in informal conversations.

Clark's supporters watched with interest to see how Goff would handle Foreign Affairs, in which Clark also had a great interest. The pair worked together well in the area, dealing with matters from the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan to pushing New Zealand's free trade prospects.

He was considered to have performed strongly in the role although eyebrows raised when Goff met Yasser Arafat and later criticised Israel for its reaction to the meeting.

One other minister of the time also remarked how well the relationship worked, but added it was clear that "[Clark] was a dominant player - not a partner".

When the ebbs and flows of MMP meant Goff lost his treasured foreign affairs portfolio to Winston Peters, he managed to restrict himself to a gritted teeth comment about the interests of stability of government, although he did make it public that Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had sought clarification on exactly who Australia should be dealing with.

In the top job:

If Goff had discovered that Opposition was the ideal time to enter Parliament, he must have also known that the first term of Opposition is also the worst possible time to become a party leader.

It was Clark who nominated Phil Goff as the leader to replace her during a meeting of shellshocked Cabinet members in 2008, just two days after the election. There was some discussion about putting up a fresher team, but the decision was unanimous: Goff was the only person who could do the job.

The timing was bad. There was little of the usual attendant publicity that came with a leadership change, partly because Goff was already well known but mainly because eyes were instead turned on the new incoming National Government, its coalition talks, its "first 100 days" programme.

Before he'd even had time to move into the office, Goff was dismissed as a "caretaker" leader, and by National as "fill-in Phil".

Some saw it as a message that it would be business as usual with Labour, rather than a new Labour. Goff moved quickly to show penance, saying Labour had made mistakes when in government with measures perceived as "nanny state".

Rather than the expected lurch to the right, Labour has gone the other way to differentiate itself from National. Michael Joseph Savage takes pride of place on Goff's wall and the policies rolling out of Labour are more left than right - the focus on early childhood, opposition to a GST increase and state asset sales, a new top tax rate to help pay for the tax-free threshold of the first $5000 of income.

Members of Labour's caucus say Goff's is a more relaxed regime than Clark's.

Senior spokespeople, especially the finance team led by David Cunliffe, are given their heads.

One was astonished at the frank discussions that were permitted within caucus and said it was more relaxed compared to the "iron rod" of Clark.

Promising backbenchers are encouraged, part of the succession planning which King says is critical to any party, and one aspect Clark had not addressed.

But with this comes the expectation of collectivity as soon as the doors are opened.

Evidence of this has been seen twice - once after Goff's Nationhood speech focusing on race issues angered the Maori caucus and some MPs. They headed into caucus but emerged with "no comments" and "I stand by the leader".

The collectivity was seen again - although it was more strained - in the aftermath of Darren Hughes' resignation. That was the biggest test for Goff so far and the first real sign that others were preparing themselves should the time come for a leadership change. The decision to dump Chris Carter for his questioning of the leadership was more clear-cut.

There are some ways in which Goff has followed Clark. He's kept the unofficial "left" close, ensuring people like Maryan Street and Ruth Dyson were put on the front bench while newer members of the left - Grant Robertson - were promoted when gaps opened up. Former party president Mike Williams says this was one of his wisest moves. Many in caucus would have been nervous about what the Goff-King ticket meant for them, and his actions removed the potential for division.

"He was building his own team and he handled it pretty well. There didn't appear to be a 'Goff faction'. That was Clark's style and that's the sensible way to run a caucus."

His close circle of friends in Parliament is limited to the likes of King, Rick Barker and David Shearer, but MPs say he runs an open door policy should they need to talk to him.

Few deny Goff's public image is an issue. Only now is the media beginning to cover his back story, much of it long forgotten by the public. He is slightly reluctant about opening his private life to the nation, but recognises it comes with the job: "People like to know what makes you tick".

Goff himself doesn't bother sugar coating his situation. He says the job is the toughest he's ever done. He expected it to be tough and wasn't disappointed.

"Nobody ever actually wants to be Leader of the Opposition because it might lead to a different position. That's the way it goes. Hmmm."

He concedes Labour is the underdog for the election, but believes they can still win. Clark never publicly spoke about a life after the leadership. "I have no plan B" became her mantra when asked about losing the 2008 election.

Faced with the same questions, there is a pause while Goff considers how to answer. First he utters the same sentence and then he continues. He emphasises twice that when he leaves the role, it will be his own decision. Then he will be happy to remain as the MP for Mt Roskill.

On moral issues

Goff's record on conscience votes:

Euthanasia

Phil Goff supports euthanasia in some circumstances, a stance he says was reinforced by his own mother's death three years ago.

In conscience votes he has twice voted in favour of bills allowing euthanasia - once in 1995 and again for the Death with Dignity Bill in 2003. That bill lost narrowly by 60 votes to 58.

Goff said he valued human life and it would be important to ensure any legislation allowing euthanasia could not be subject to abuse. However, his personal view was that people deserved to be able to make their own decisions about ending their life.

Homosexual law reform

Goff voted in favour of homosexual law reforms - from the decriminalisation of homosexuality to the Civil Unions. Act.

Prostitution

Voted in favour of the legalisation of prostitution.

Smacking

Voted in favour of the anti-smacking law.

Drinking age

When he was Justice Minister in 2003 he voted against lowering the drinking age to 18. He later voted against a bill to increase it back to 20. He now supports the "split age" of 18 for on-licenses and 20 for off-licences.

Goff's views

On abortion laws: The law is a conservative law that has been increasingly applied liberally. I don't see a great deal of benefit to be gained from trying to change the law.

On notifying parents about teenage abortions: I could understand why a parent would be upset if their underage daughter had made a decision without involving them in it. Having said that, I think that the day a counsellor who a girl confides in breaks that confidence and reports what she has said against her will is the day a girl will never go to a counsellor for advice.

Same sex marriage: I supported civil unions. I cannot understand how anyone legitimately could be opposed to a couple wanting to legitimise their relationship in that way.

Same-sex adoption: The gender of the parents is less important than the guarantee of the quality of the environment in which the child is brought up.

Single person adoption: Lots of single parents bring up their children admirably, I don't believe there's a reason to discriminate against them.

Smacking: I on occasion smacked my children and I often think it was more for my benefit than the benefit of the child, as an expression of emotion. I think the law as it stands is fine. I've seen no evidence good parents are being criminalised by it.

The series

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

- NZ Herald

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