John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour's decision to ditch campaign launch a slap in the face for Goff

Phil Goff. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Phil Goff. File photo / Mark Mitchell

Whether Labour likes it or not, the party's ditching of the traditional leader's rally as the platform to officially launch its election campaign will inevitably be seen as a confession that Phil Goff is a major liability.

For further proof of that assertion, look no further than the accompanying decision to keep Goff's face off Labour's nationwide billboards.

This is embarrassing for Goff and risks coming dangerously close to being a vote of no confidence by the party in its leader.

Labour strategists would argue they are being realistic - that Goff's appalling ratings as preferred prime minister make it both silly and foolish to fight the election as a popularity contest between him and John Key.

Labour hardly needs reminding it starts from way behind. It knows it has to surprise if it is to have any chance of setting the campaign agenda - something it must do.

It knows it has to take risks to get voters to take notice. Otherwise, the next four weeks will be a slow and painful dawdle to defeat.

Rather than being hostage to convention, Labour is focusing its campaign around policy rather than personality. It is painting itself as the party with the leader willing to take the hard but necessary decisions - be it a capital gains tax or compulsory savings for retirement.

It will portray Key as a lacklustre prime minister who always takes the soft options to maintain his popularity.

Goff will be used to front the issues on which Labour hopes to gain traction. Labour will accordingly launch its campaign today with the release of its savings policy. Goff will feature prominently in the presentation of that policy - just as he fronts some of Labour's television advertisements, notably one that has him railing against asset sales.

The concentration on policy as a means to enhance Goff's appeal to voters is a big gamble, however. Election campaigns can be devoid of serious debate about policy. The trivial can dominate.

That is one reason campaigns have become so presidential, with huge focus on the leaders. The leader has to embody what his or her party stands for and project that message during the campaign no matter the distractions.

That task reaches its climax in the televised leaders' debates.

Goff will go head-to-head with Key three times. The first debate next Monday offers him a golden opportunity to defy the public's typecasting of him. Moreover, the debate comes as some of the gloss has been removed from Key's prime ministership and Labour finally has some substantial ammunition to fire back at National on the question of economic management.

However, Goff's failure to front a campaign launch gives Key a free hit. The Prime Minister can question why the public should have any confidence in Goff's ability to do his job when his own party lacks confidence in him.

Election campaigns are an audition for the job of prime minister. That is why parties showcase their leader's strengths in front of an audience of clapping and cheering supporters. Such rallies demonstrate the party's faith in its leader. It is an opportunity to make the leader look like a winner.

Labour has not ruled out some kind of ra-ra rally later in the campaign. However, by trying to push the issue of leadership into the background before the campaign has barely begun, it is effectively hoisting the white flag on a crucial factor shaping voter choice.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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