An able and respected leader

It will come as little consolation to Phil Goff that friends and erstwhile foes have been so generous in their post-election assess- ments of the man and his career.

He took over the leadership of the Labour Party on Helen Clark's demise three years ago with the intention of winning back office. He has clearly failed in that primary objective but also presided over a decline in the party's popular support. To that extent the plaudits will have fallen on bruised shoulders.

Neither will it have lessened the blow that he is only now - in the aftermath of a campaign in which he is seen by some commentators to have held the incumbent Prime Minister John Key to account and, on occasion, had the better of him - gaining the respect to which he was perhaps earlier entitled. Mr Key himself on election night had generous words to say about him: "He's a hard working parliamentarian and he has always had New Zealand's best interest at heart."

This week, as Mr Goff signalled his intention to resign on December 13, the Prime Minister hinted that a prominent overseas role could be in the offing for his former opposite. For the moment, however, Mr Goff has indicated he intends to see out his term serving the people of his electorate, Mt Roskill, who returned him to Parliament on Saturday with an overwhelming majority.

In so doing he will be demonstrating the same dedication to the political career he has made his life's work and, notwithstanding a necessary degree of personal ambition, the loyalty to his party evident in his acceptance of the mantle of leadership from Miss Clark. He, like others, will have known that this particular chalice was laced with a potent poison. Whoever had drunk from it would likely have suffered a similar fate against the seemingly irrepressible popularity of Mr Key.

Given Mr Goff has announced his intention to remain in office it is premature to be penning his political obituary; it is however pertinent to sketch out the staging posts of his career. He entered Parliament as MP for Mt Roskill in 1981 after a prominent role in student activism.

He was re-elected in 1984 and promoted to cabinet, moving to the right of the party seemingly under the sway of then finance minister Roger Douglas and others - Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble and David Caygill among them.

He lost his seat in 1990, was re-elected in 1993 and has retained office, and increasingly senior roles in Parliament, since. He was implicated in an attempt to unseat then leader Helen Clark in 1996, but was not demoted as might have been expected when the party regained the treasury benches in 1999.

During his years in Parliament, Mr Goff has held posts of Minister for Housing, Employment, Youth Affairs, Tourism, Education, Justice, Foreign Affairs and Defence.

He has now also served as Leader of the Opposition. That is a wealth of experience to have pitted against the comparative newcomer Mr Key. Add to this an agile mind, a capacity for hard work and a pleasant if not overly charismatic persona and he could be forgiven for wondering where he went wrong.

The truth is, Mr Goff was blindsided by political history. It simply was not his turn - or more pertinently, Labour's time. If political popularity can be seen to follow cycles, he was on the wrong side of it, and having been anointed by his immediate predecessor did not help.

For all the respect Miss Clark was held in as a firm and able leader, the depth of antipathy to some of Labour's social legislation is only now being properly gauged. Mr Goff looked a good five years younger as on Tuesday he announced his intention to step down, while the main contenders for his job - David Cunliffe and David Shearer - looked to have aged in the very moment of stepping up to the leadership challenge.

So go the burdens of ambition and higher office. They will know that for all of Mr Goff's best efforts, there is an enormous challenge ahead to narrow the gap with National and win back their party's traditional support. And a formidable opponent in Mr Key against whom more than experience and intellectual dexterity will be required.

 

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