I assume Phil Goff would like to be Prime Minister of New Zealand. He has every reason to think he deserves the job. He’s served a lengthy apprenticeship, having come into Parliament in 1981, the same year as Helen Clark. And he’s had a distinguished career as an MP and Cabinet Minister. He’s highly intelligent and well-informed on a whole range of portfolios from Justice to Foreign Affairs. And he comes from good Labour stock.
Goff and his party are languishing in the polls at the moment, but their figures are actually better than Helen Clark’s and Labour’s were in early-mid 1996.
Labour in early 1996 dropped as low as 14%. But the overall left vote was pretty strong – with the Alliance and NZ First, they were around 50%.
Labour and Greens have no other potential partners on the left, except the Maori Party, which Labour keeps doing its best to alienate.
But it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if Clark had not called the coup leaders’ bluff and stood down. In every conversation I’ve had with Michael Cullen, he’s claimed to have had no interest in leading the Labour Party or being Prime Minister. So Labour’s new leader might well have been Phil Goff: 43, talented, hungry, going places.
Could Goff have won against Bolger in 1996? Quite possibly. A factor in Winston Peter’s decision to go with National in the country’s first MMP election may well have been his reluctance to serve under a woman Prime Minister. So he might just have gone with Labour, and Phil Goff would have achieved his ambition to lead the country.
A big factor in NZF going with National was the sheer arrogance of the Labour negotiators. A Goff leadership might have avoided making that mistake.
I also think Labour would have done quite a bit better in 2008, if Goff had been made Finance Minister in mid 2007.
Popular political wisdom at the moment has it that Labour will not win the next election. If that is right and if Goff’s personal rating as preferred Prime Minister has not significantly improved by then, he’s unlikely to survive long as Opposition leader after the election. In similar circumstances, Clark had 6 months to improve her poll ratings and did so spectacularly. Goff has at least 18 months and National’s social and economic policies will inevitably begin to erode the party’s huge lead in the polls well before then. So Goff is in with a chance, albeit a slender one.
Against him is a less easy, less engaging image than Key’s and a phenomenon which I like to call The Prince Charles Syndrome. Charles, the man who would be king, has simply been around too long. Kept waiting by a mother in excellent health and showing no inclination to abdicate, the once young and attractive prince has lost his appeal to his handsome and exciting son, Prince William. Kept waiting by the hugely charismatic, if morally flawed Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the dour Scottish son of a Presbyterian minister, may have suffered the same fate – around too long. And the same may be true of Phil Goff.
At the heart of National’s 2008 election win was the simplistic but potent belief that it was ‘time for a change’. John Key had been in Parliament only 6 years when he became Prime Minister. He was fresh and new and the electorate is giving him a lot of slack. We are still getting to know him.
When the 2011 election rolls around, Phil Goff will have been in Parliament for 30 years, kept waiting for twelve of those years by a woman who in 1996 also refused to abdicate.
So does Phil Goff deserve to be Prime Minister of New Zealand? I believe that he does.
And has he been around too long? Possibly.
I an normally very loath to make predictions about what party will win an election, or even a seat. Partly because of my day job, and partly because I know how quickly things can change.
I was very cautious about the results of the 2008 election, right up to and including election night.
However for most of the last year I have been saying that I do not think Labour will win the next election. Not because John Key is popular. Not because National is in its first term. But because, like Brian Edwards, I do not think voters will choose to elect as a “fresh face” someone who has been an MP since 1981.
Of course it can happen, National could implode. Some sort of event could cause the public to want a PM with 30 years experience in Parliament, rather than John Key. But it is a very hard sell, regardless of what Goff does.
The baby boomer generation did place a premium on experience in Parliament. Holyoake served 25 yars before becoming PM. Marshall served 26 years. Nash did 28 years. Kirk did 15 and Muldoon did 15.
Later on it was shorter. Lange did 7. Bolger 18, Shipley 10, Clark 18 and Key 6.
Even in the old days, 30 years was beyond the waiting period for Holyoake, Nash and Marshall.
Today people distrust more people who have spent their entire life in Parliament. It is, well uncool. Look around the world:
Kevin Rudd became Pm after only eight years in Parliament. Tony Blair took 1 years to be Leader and PM in 14. David Cameron may do it in 13. Even Tony Abbott is in only his 16th year. Stephen Harper made PM 13 years after he entered. Angela Merkel took 15 years.
Now this is not a hard and fast rule. But it is a sign of the massive challenge ahead of Goff, to convince voters that he is a Prime Minister to lead NZ into the future.