Fran O'Sullivan: Goff's attacks on shaky ground

By Fran O'Sullivan

The Prime Minister's latest jibe, "Whack it on the bill, Phil" - as a moniker for Labour Leader Phil Goff - fell way short of the mark.

Goff is not an economic illiterate. Far from it. But the Labour leader would have won more brownie points with his post-Budget attacks if he had dished up a credible plan of his own, spelling out just what hard choices his party would have make to get New Zealand out of the mire. He didn't.

The problem for Goff is he is already deeply conflicted by the choices he exercised as a former minister in the fourth Labour Government.

So while he was in fine fettle as he slammed into the National Government for ignoring the growing numbers of jobless in its debut Budget as it "grovelled" to the credit rating agencies, he has a large credibility gap to overcome if he is to be taken seriously. And not to be just viewed as indulging himself in political hyperbole.

As the record shows, the former Rogernome doesn't have too much to brag about himself when it comes to preserving jobs during times of economic stress.

Barely into his 30s, he was appointed Minister of Employment in the 1984 Labour Government at a time when New Zealand began a painful period of restructuring as state subsidies and protections were dismantled.

A Labour Department bulletin indicates that between 1984 and 1991 (the year following the Lange Government's defeat), employment declined by 83,000 (5.4 per cent). Even adjusting for changes in the country's labour force over this period, the nation's unemployment rate more than doubled and subsequently peaked at 11.1 per cent in the first quarter of 1992.

Some of this was due to the loss of manufacturing jobs. But the Labour Government's reforms fell more disproportionately on non-Europeans, the less-educated, youthful and older workers.

It's notable that some 70 per cent of those who were sacked from state sector jobs in former departments like the railways and forestry were Maori. It's arguable that National's restart and nine-day working week top-ups do just as much - if not more - than Goff and his colleagues put up to stem the job losses that took place then.

The 1980s Labour Government did not set out a "coherent plan to keep Kiwis in work", nor did it "take action for vulnerable New Zealanders on the brink of losing their jobs". Despite the October 1987 sharemarket crash, Labour's new state-owned enterprises made thousands of people unemployed. Conveniently for Labour they waited until after the 1987 election at a time when there were few new jobs to go too.

Then, like now, the government of the day did not focus on the "real needs of New Zealanders" but on averting a debt spiral that could threaten the country's future financial viability.

Goff's problem is he plays situational politics too aggressively.

It is still hard to believe the breathtaking way in which the former foreign affairs minister joined the Labour attack against so-called American bagmen at the 2005 election knowing full well that US investor Julian Robertson - who was the main subject of the foray - had made huge financial contributions to support former Prime Minister Helen Clark's campaign for a free trade deal with the US.

The Tiger Fund head is clearly Republican - but that does not skew his intentions to do what is right. It is a measure of Robertson's civility that he was among the first to congratulate Clark on her United Nations role and invite her to come as his guest of honour at a private dinner to introduce her to some of New York's movers and shakers; something which Clark was quite chuffed about.

Goff is on firmer ground when he questions the decision to curtail government support for the super fund. Arguably, this is exactly the right time for the fund go on a spending spree to acquire cheap assets when valuations are down. Other sovereign wealth funds are doing exactly that.

But borrowing to keep the fund rolling forward comes at a cost. Would Goff reverse the April 1 tax cuts to do that? Or would he have the courage to open the debate New Zealand has to have: whether it is time to raise the age of entitlement for national superannuation from 65 years of age.

National lacks the courage to do so. But other Labour governments - like that of Australia's Kevin Rudd - are not shying away from grappling with the demographic issues.

Problem is New Zealand Labour is still firmly slotted in the cul de sac in which it parked the economy. It is highly reactive.

Not forward-thinking. Certainly not ready to govern again yet.

- NZ Herald

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