The Weekend Herald's two-part series on Phil Goff confirmed many of the Labour Party leader's admirable traits. Not only did he emerge as a clearly capable man, but his integrity and strong work ethic were widely praised. His selection as a minister at just 31 and the wide variety of portfolios he has held since bear further testimony to these attributes. Yet sometimes that is not enough in the world of politics. Timing is also vitally important, as is the calibre and popularity of your opponent. It is Mr Goff's misfortune to be caught out on both these scores.

Just before he was elected to replace Helen Clark as Labour's leader after the 2008 election defeat, this newspaper said Mr Goff might be the only person who did not see himself as a caretaker. Subsequent developments have done nothing to suggest that view of his tenure was misplaced. Only a dramatic turnaround in fortune would see him win an election that is less than 100 days away. The widely anticipated result would, inevitably, see Labour casting around for a fresh leadership face, one relatively untainted by its past.

It has been to Mr Goff's cost that it has been impossible for him to escape his party's record and his role in that, since his first involvement in the Cabinet in 1984. He was an effective salesman of the Rogernomics reforms, even if he now says state asset sales were wrong. Indeed, so convincing was his advocacy that he was once approached to see if he was interested in leading the Act Party. Mr Goff was also not only a supporter of the introduction of GST but argued strongly against any exemptions. That has also returned to haunt him, now that he wants GST removed from fresh fruit and vegetables.

Mr Goff's discomfort about all this was evident when he told the Weekend Herald that he did not want to get "bogged down in the 80s". He knows that his past utterances, and any comment on them now, will always offer ammunition to his political opponents. As such, discretion is the better part of valour. Yet there is no doubt that he has acted with courage in pursuing a capital gains tax.


With National having rejected an overture to jointly enact this overdue reform, he has had the fortitude to make it a Labour policy. Mr Goff would have known a large slab of the population would automatically oppose a new tax, no matter how effectively its importance to the economy was explained. It is to his credit that a surprisingly large group of people have subsequently told pollsters it is an idea whose time has come.

Mr Goff is far from alone in his misfortune. In the New Zealand context, he might be compared with Bill English or Jim McLay. The former, a leading minister in a recently defeated Administration, failed to get anywhere near to leading National back to office. The latter had the unenviable task of pitting himself against a rampant David Lange. The electorate had declared itself firmly in favour of something new. Anything worthwhile that Mr McLay brought to the leadership of the National Party and offered the country, particularly in comparison to his predecessor, Sir Robert Muldoon, was almost irrelevant.

There is a world of difference between the styles of David Lange and John Key. But the Prime Minister has also been swept along by a wave of popularity. At any time, he would be a strong adversary. At the moment, he has the added benefit of a Labour leader who cannot shake off his and his party's record.

In another time, Mr Goff's many qualities, not least his wide ministerial experience, his capacity for work and an obvious common sense, would be regarded as strong prime ministerial prerequisites. Unfortunately for him, they appear likely to count for little on a polling day not far in the future.