Kerre McIvor
Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre Woodham: Dining with the leaders: Comfort zone for nice guy


Phil and Mary Goff are relaxed and easy-going while serving Kerre Woodham tea and scones in the kitchen of their Clevedon home. But out on the campaign trail, things are still looking grim for the Leader of the Opposition.

Labour Party Leader Phil Goff and his wife Mary put on afternoon tea for Kerre Woodham at their home in Clevedon. Photo / Janna Dixon
Labour Party Leader Phil Goff and his wife Mary put on afternoon tea for Kerre Woodham at their home in Clevedon. Photo / Janna Dixon

When I mentioned to a couple of my friends that I was going out to Phil and Mary Goff's for afternoon tea on Saturday for the Herald on Sunday 's Dining with the Leaders series, one of them snorted dismissively, "Going out to write his political eulogy?"

It hasn't been an easy election campaign for the Leader of the Opposition. Trailing in the polls and plagued with questions about the loyalty of his caucus and his ability to lead the Labour Party, Phil Goff has been on the back foot from the start. You would expect the strain to show.

But when Janna, the photographer, and I drove out for afternoon tea at the Goffs' place in Clevedon, it was a relaxed, confident Phil Goff who met us at the door of his home. The 20ha working farm the Goffs bought 20 years ago is his sanctuary and Mary Goff, an attractive woman in a stylish tunic and leggings, is clearly his rock.

She's a capable woman, perfectly able to manage the farm and the home while her husband is away politicking.

The latest addition to the farm, Belle, an adorable huntaway puppy, was acquired because Mary was getting sick of running after the sheep herself. Mary's enlisted the aid of a neighbour to help train Belle as a working dog but until she has to begin her apprenticeship Belle's making the most of being a puppy - chewing shoes, tormenting Jafa, the Goffs' old foxy, and licking any faces and hands that come near her.

The Goffs' home is spacious and comfortable - it's not a McMansion, those sorts of architect-designed, three-level monuments to money that have sprung up in the more fashionable rural suburbs of Auckland, although there is a small kidney-shaped swimming pool. You can tell a family has been raised here and that the family will always be welcome home.

A little granny flat out the back of the house was built for Mary's mum, who lived there till she died. Mary has taught Phil's dad, a fiercely independent soul in his 90s, how to use the microwave so he can heat up the meals she cooks him. "I worry that he doesn't eat properly," she says. "I'll give him some chicken and say, put some veges with it, but he just looks at me and says, 'I'll just have the chicken'."

She laughs. He's of the old school. Before we head inside for afternoon tea, Phil and Mary invite us to walk around the garden. There are raised beds where vegetables flourish. These are the battlegrounds where Mary, the rabbits and pukeko wage constant warfare but, judging by the healthy-looking lettuces and silverbeet, Mary has gained the upper hand.

There are native trees the Goffs have planted and they've also cultivated a small lawn. When they bought the house it had a traditional landscaped garden, but it required too much maintenance so the natives have been allowed to take over.

Phil Goff leans over the fence at the back of the house and points to a row of macrocarpas. "That's where I went when the All Blacks lost to France at Cardiff in the last World Cup. After the whistle blew, I went out and went crazy with the chainsaw and the axe. I worked like a slave for six hours and I still felt sick."

We talk about rugby for a bit - Goff is a keen footy fan - and we agree that one point was good enough for this year's win. I mention a dream my mum had had when Stephen Donald was selected. In it she'd seen Donald winning us the World Cup - clear as crystal.

Phil Goff laughs. "Can you ask her to have a dream about the election result?"

As we walk back to the house, Phil says: "It's great getting back to the farm. There's always something that needs doing - a fence that needs fixing, or stock that need moving, or wood that needs to be chopped."

I ask, "the joy of seeing something tangible as the result of your efforts?"

"Exactly," he replies.

We go into the kitchen, Belle running between our feet, where Mary is boiling the jug. She has made a lemon loaf and scones; Phil had picked up some cakes from his local bakery which formerly was owned by the mayor of Papakura and still carries his name. Phil's not much of a cook.

Mary says when the children were younger the deal was that she would cook during the week; Phil would cook at the weekends. "The kids loved it!" laughs Phil. "It was Pizza Hut or McDonald's every weekend."

Phil carries the loaded afternoon tea tray through to the lounge. Off the lounge is an outdoor entertaining area with a huge fireplace that Phil built with help from family and friends.

The Goffs' home is largely free of the exotic clutter and bric-a-brac that is an occupational hazard of being a foreign minister. The homes of foreign ministers past are generally crammed to the gunwales with the most appalling crap - plates, woodwork, masks and glass ornaments - that is bestowed upon visiting ministers at every banquet and state function.

How on earth did he manage to get rid of all the presents, I ask. "Oh," says Phil, "there are always kindergarten fairs and school fundraisers looking for raffle prizes."

"And you've got a lot of stuff in your office and your Wellington flat," adds Mary. She doesn't go on many of Phil's work trips - there's too much to do at home. But she has gone with him when the destinations have been exotic - she accompanied Phil to Cuba, for example, like a good leftie wife should. She went to Mongolia and to Libya in a private capacity, and they both enjoyed a trip to the Greek island of Santorini for a family wedding.

They haven't decided quite what they'll do this Christmas. Phil says he's looking forward to a holiday. "It'd be great to have a month off, read a few books, lie around on the beach."

Mary chips in. "That would make a change!"

He's not really one for lying about on beaches, she says to me. Last Christmas, the couple went on a motorbike safari round the South Island with some mates from the Labour caucus and their partners. Mary rode pillion on Phil's Triumph Bonneville 850cc bike the first day but, after a couple of hundred kilometres of buffeting wind and rain, she decided to go in one of the support cars following the riders.

Game enough to ride behind Phil; smart enough to call it quits when it got uncomfortable. Phil and Mary Goff make a great team. I've been to dinner parties where couples have been warring and the "darlings" are hurled across the table like missiles but, in this case, the endearments are warm and their enjoyment of one another's company is genuine.

Next month, the couple will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their relationship - Mary was just 15, Phil 18, when they met. It's testament to the strength of their characters that their marriage has survived time and the rigours of politics. Perhaps absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Phil said he'd worked out that even though they've been together for 40 years, they've spent so little time together that they're still on their honeymoon.

We talk a little about Labour's policy on raising the age of eligibility for national superannuation and I ask Mary if she's looking forward to Phil retiring. They look at each other, side by side on the couch, and burst out laughing. "I keep thinking of your mother when your father retired," she says. "She kept saying: 'What am I going to do with him?' When he got a part-time job, she was so relieved."

I ask Phil whether he discusses policy with Mary and he gives a wry smile.

"She's very good at telling me what I've done well and what I haven't done so well," he says. "It's good. You need to have somebody there to tell you honestly what they think and to critique you. Of course, I end up sulking for days ..."

They both laugh and Phil exclaims, glancing over at his female press secretary, "I'm surrounded by stroppy women!"

It should be some relief to Phil that one of the stroppiest is now safely ensconced in the United Nations, so there's one down.

It's time for Phil and Mary to start getting ready for dinner - a sit-down dinner with members of the local Chinese community. As we're saying goodbye, Belle seizes the opportunity to snatch a piece of lemon loaf from the coffee table.

"Belle!" admonishes Phil. "Bad dog!"

No one, least of all Belle, believes he's really cross. He's just too nice a guy. That's what makes him such good company and such a successful family man.

The Labour Party will be hoping that nice guys don't finish last.

- Herald on Sunday

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