What is it about Phil Goff that he sounds rehearsed even when he isn't? At full flight in Parliament he can be hugely impressive. But get him in front of a television or radio interviewer - or even a print journalist - he switches into robotic style.

If there's one attribute Goff must change to get cut-through with voters, it is his dreadfully monotonic delivery.

Goff's strategist John Pagani will no doubt be schooling him up on this score.

But he's been in Parliament so long, seen it all so many times, that even media stunts - like getting the Norton Commando out for a grand roaring entrance at the Labour Party conference - could easily be construed as the kind of last fling many men of his vintage indulge in before settling for a comfortable retirement with the wife instead of getting a trophy chick.

Yet, even so ... the mere fact Goff signed Pagani.

The fact he is prepared to face-down accusations his radical policy shifts are simply a cynical vote-buying exercise means he can't be counted out (yet).

Goff's nationhood speech ('NZ is at cross-roads') inevitably sparked outrage among liberals: He was "playing the race card"; indulging in "dog whistle" politics - all the usual cliches that have passed for political discourse since Crosby Textor discovered this country (or should that be vice versa?).

The repositioning exercise is important. Reopening the foreshore and seabed debate (Goff now suggests Labour got it wrong in critical areas) is risky, when he was a high-ranking Cabinet minister in the Government that effectively nationalised this coastal fringe. But National had already opened that can of worms.

The principled position would be for Labour and National to insist the issue goes back to the courts to determine whether individual iwi can prove customary rights. But neither seems prepared to go down that route.

Goff has also taken issue with the Government's sweetheart deal with five iwi to clear the way for the emissions trading legislation to proceed. This remains a raw nerve.

But it's possible that these two issues are a mere curtain-raiser for what lies ahead if discussions - speculated to be under way - result in Auckland tribes gaining some form of co-management rights over the city's volcanic cones, some Hauraki Gulf islands and parts of the gulf.

The various proposals may not yet eventuate as part of fully-fledged Waitangi Treaty settlements.

But with a big fraction of the country's voters residing in Auckland - the issue has the potential to cut in either major party's favour.

Goff's decision to abandon the monetary policy consensus between the two major parties is of a different order again. He argues exporters pay a high price for New Zealand's reliance on monetary policy to keep inflation down, at the cost of other economic imperatives.

But Goff's failure to produce an alternative policy on this score does not foster Labour's credibility. Goff's low poll ratings illustrate he has a long way to go before he presents a threat to the incumbent Prime Minister.

John Key might not like this said publicly, but the politician he rates as Labour's potential game-breaker is not Goff, but Labour MP Shane Jones. It is Jones' unpredictability that makes him a source of fascination for Key.

The 50-year-old Jones has yet to fulfil the political promise that earlier marked him as having the potential to be New Zealand's first Maori Prime Minister. Given his closeness to former National Party Maori vice-president Sir Graham Latimer - he was marked out for National but he chose Labour.

He is close mates with Business Roundtable chairman Rob McLeod. It was McLeod who made sure he had his gall bladder removed promptly after being struck with a crippling pain attack while driving in Auckland.

Jones in full verbal flight is also impressive. Under parliamentary privilege he attacked Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite over the Tranzrail insider trading settlement, saying they represented a betrayal of ethical standards that still haunted business today.

"They squeaked out of the Winebox but the cork, having been pulled off this bottle, shows the sludge of their wrongdoing hasn't been forgotten by us. Not at all."

And attacked the Maori Party over its emissions deal, saying it was complicit in underhanded, double dealing which benefits a narrow, gentrified southern tribal class. "They have repudiated their own members who opposed the ETS, and have left an enormous amount of ill-will on the back of corporate welfare for the elite of planet Ngai Tahu."

He has also been stepping up his profile. He could still come a cropper over the immigration scandal surrounding Bill Liu.

But like NZ First's Winston Peters he is a difficult target for Maori to attack when he charges Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia with making an egregious deal that looks after tribal gentry at the expense of the lower paid.

This is one attribute Goff does not have.