Indefatigable Goff stays true to putting party before person

By Geraldine Johns

Phil Goff says Leader of the Opposition is the worst job in Parliament - and he should know. As a re-energised backbench MP, Goff has been watching his friend and successor, David Shearer, endure the slings and arrows of leadership, reports Geraldine Johns.

Phil Goff, holding 5-year-old Daphne Lamatia at Hay Park Primary School, is almost as busy as when he was Leader of the Opposition, but his life is far more relaxed. Photo / Doug Sherring
Phil Goff, holding 5-year-old Daphne Lamatia at Hay Park Primary School, is almost as busy as when he was Leader of the Opposition, but his life is far more relaxed. Photo / Doug Sherring

"One more sleep to bouncy castle day," shrieks the sign at the entrance to the Hillsborough Kindergarten. Phil Goff will be there.

He's just popped in to tell the teachers. Then there's another sleep before the Highland Games Scottish cultural festival in Three Kings Reserve, where Goff is scheduled to receive the 10,000th signature for the petition to stop asset sales.

And this morning he will be his eternally bright-eyed self for a 7.30 start at a White Ribbon Day breakfast, before gunning along on his motorbike to the Farmers Santa Parade in Auckland central this afternoon. There, he'll be attempting to gather more petition signatures, before the arrival of the other big guy who is also identified by the colour red.

So go the most recent three days in the diary of the MP for Mt Roskill.

Goff: former leader of the Labour Party, former minister of you name-just-about-any portfolio and MP for the best part of 30 years is now giving it all to the locals.

That's the joy of taking your foot off the leadership pedal and adjusting to the cruise and control of electorate and community duties.

Certainly that's the way he's pitching it. "One of the beauties of not being Leader of the Opposition is I'm not run by half-hour appointments," he says. Nor is he doing 100-hour weeks; he's pared that back to 70.

Everything is measured with regard to Parliamentary input. The level of busyness he's at now is almost comparable with when he was a minister, he says, "but my lifestyle is much more relaxed".

Not enough to make him think about bailing, however. Goff has declared his intention to stand at the next election. By the time that's held he will have been an MP almost continually since 1981. The only time he has not been in Parliament since he was first elected was when he lost to Gilbert Myles in 1990 and spent three years on what he calls his "sabbatical". He spent them as a senior lecturer at the Auckland Institute of Technology.

That was when he found himself shouting impotently at Radio New Zealand National's Morning Report programme, and realised that he wanted to be "a gladiator, not a spectator".

Fifteen years in Government, 15 in Opposition. Party leader, but never prime minister. A life divided between Wellington and Auckland throughout his tenure.

You wonder why he does not just give it all away, or why, indeed, he didn't when he stood down as party leader after last year's election loss to John Key.


The business of leadership and the battles that can ensue is verboten this week. David Shearer's tangle with David Cunliffe has Goff adhering to the dictate from the man who replaced him that he not speak about the caucus machinations that led to Cunliffe being demoted to the back bench.

But he's happy to talk about Shearer as leader. "People say, 'Is David a leader?' Hell yeah."

His new boss is not a smooth politician with glib answers, he says. "And what he lacks in parliamentary experience he more than makes up for in long-term experience in the real world." This prompts a recitation of his achievements.

"I like his integrity, his substance, his absolute commitment to what he's doing. He's a guy of substance."

Does it not pain the three-decades MP to advocate for someone to have the top job - when it should have been his? "No, I'm part of a movement that's bigger than any individual; it's not about my ego."

Goff has been party in the past to moves to oust a former leader (Helen Clark). What advice would he give Shearer, then? "Insofar as I'd give advice, it would be 'stay true to yourself, do the things you believe in and show people who the real David Shearer is. Speak from your heart as well as your head'."

And any advice for Cunliffe? "No. I don't think it's appropriate for me to give that publicly."

Goff - blue-and-white check shirt, dark suit and sharp shoes - says he does not want to be prime minister next time around.

"Of course I would have liked to be prime minister, of course. But I've never wanted the job just for the status of the job. It wasn't an obsession. It wasn't a notch in the belt."

He agrees that opposition is miserable, that to be Leader of the Opposition is to have the worst job in Parliament. But in the next breath he's talking about how opposition gives you some time to think and to go out in the community, of which he's been doing a lot of late.

He thinks, come the next election, he'd love another tilt at a ministerial portfolio. What specifically? "I enjoyed foreign affairs and I enjoyed trade. But I'd take whatever I was given and be grateful for it."

Life is more than bouncy-castle days at the local kindergarten. Recently, he went to Europe, principally on European Union matters. He did London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Brussels.

"Our standing in Europe is not good at the moment," he says. "We've cut back on our representation there at a time when they are in crisis. They are concerned about New Zealand's backtracking on global warming."

He wants to head the campaign that would get New Zealand on the UN Security Council. He may have got his life back, as he says, but the breathless flight of political speak is ever present. Education is something he also feels very strongly about (hardly surprising, given that he held that portfolio, too.) And so we visit Hay Park School in his electorate, a decile 2 school of 180 children in Years 1 to 6.

Principal Margaret Aikman is aghast to see Goff has the media in tow. "I hope you don't have news he's going," she says.

No. Goff is here to put her in touch with someone who, they hope, will be able to help in extending the school's two-day breakfast programme to a five-day arrangement. "We have 40 kids on the programme two days a week, but we need it every day."

She says Goff has been great. "He's been a huge supporter of our school. He has maintained his links with us, even when he was leader."

We drive through working-class streets where Goff grew up, past houses that electorate residents can no longer afford to buy.

The indefatigable Goff has a summit scheduled tomorrow to discuss affordable housing in the area.

Come Christmas, he's off to his bach on Orere Point with wife and long-time love Mary before going to Burma, Thailand and Taiwan with Mary as well as Annette King and her spouse. It will be his first visit to Burma.

And then he'll be back in the bear pit once more. Is it, he is asked, that like former Labour leader David Lange he's too scared to leave the bubble that is Parliament for a life that he may no longer fit into outside?

"No. I still have a passion for it. I still believe in it.

"I still have the energy and enthusiasm to want to do it. And of all the careers I've had, politics has been by far the most challenging."

- Herald on Sunday

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