Labour leader boxed in alongside Winston Peters

It goes without saying that Phil Goff has a major problem in simply connecting with voters. More to the point, voters find it difficult to connect with him.

It's not that people dislike him. But they do not warm to him. John Key reads his speeches with all the panache of someone dictating the contents of the telephone directory. Somehow he manages to stir more emotions than a week of Goff's fire and brimstone spectaculars in Parliament.

Goff is otherwise a pretty flawless politician.

But he sounds like the professional politician whose senses have been dulled by close to three decades in Parliament.

There is no doubting he is genuine in his beliefs and values. What he has trouble in doing is convincing his audience of that. Goff"s spiel sounds rote and detached.

His phrasing contains all the right words. But somehow the earnestness sounds artificial and forced.
It leaves the listener cold. His audience switches off.

Goff is nowhere near as dreadful as Australian premier Julia Gillard whose every stilted sentence comes dripping with goblets of insincerity.

The puzzle is why Key, another middle-aged male whose value system is not a million miles removed from Goff's, strikes a chord with voters when Goff does not.

When people talk of Key being a "nice guy", it is said as a genuine compliment. When they call Goff a "nice guy", it is uttered out of politeness.

As things go down to the election-year wire, Goff's handicap is now being compounded by over-caution and reticence. Perhaps he thinks that he can pull off a narrow win in November with the Greens, NZ First and perhaps the Maori Party in tow, as long as Labour does not scare the horses.

But he is up against a formidable opponent who this week - before Goff had even realised - boxed the Labour leader into a corner alongside everyone's less than favoured coalition partner, Winston Peters.

With election day now less than 300 sleeps away, however, Goff must contemplate taking some risks to make the electorate sit up and take notice. The reason is that pre-campaign Labour must look like it is going to be a player in post-election negotiations, otherwise votes will drift elsewhere.

Goff does not want to end up looking desperate.

It is a line that is easy to cross. But sitting back is not an option either.

Of significance is that Goff has failed to win the initial new year skirmishes against Key.

The latter did not want Goff to return from the summer holidays and break the two-year trend in the polls which has National enjoying a lead over Labour of up to and beyond 20 points.

The Prime Minister is taking nothing for granted. There is still the nagging possibility that National could secure by far the biggest share of the vote but still be ousted from Government. 

Both men put considerable effort into their January state of the nation speeches. But Goff failed to make the splash with his he was hoping for.

As fellow commentator Chris Trotter has observed, Goff's advocacy of a $5000 tax-free zone fell short of the kind of shake-up needed to alter the political dynamic. Rather than embarking on a fundamental shift back to a far more progressive tax system, Goff's plan just looked like fiddling for fiddling's sake. It failed to capture the imagination.

It simply provoked the inevitable demands for Labour to explain how it would gather the extra revenue to make up for the shortfall to fund its spending.

Further testimony of Goff's caution was this week's reshuffle of his Opposition line-up. He did manage to undertake a major reallocation of portfolios, most notably health and education which are very important to Labour, while also moving a host of people up and down the rankings to an extent which Helen Clark would never have contemplated.

But the front bench is the shop window. With just one fresh face on Labour's front bench, the reshuffle looked lame.

Officially, it is being called "pragmatic"; that it was better to leave the likes of under-performers like Ruth Dyson and Parekura Horomia on the front bench than potentially generate friction by removing them. Chris Carter casts a heavy shadow. And had Goff dumped anyone off the front bench, barring Shane Jones, there was no-one with the competence or experience to move up as replacements.

That is by the by. What Goff does have to be wary about is Key's capacity to think beyond the square and surprise .

It would be easy for National's leader to sit tight on the massive advantage bestowed on him by the preferred prime minister ratings.

Instead, Key is seeking to reinforce his popularity by portraying himself as a new breed of politician.

This creature is open and upfront about its policy intentions, the details of which are made utterly transparent.

Hence the announcement about selling portions of the three state-owned electricity generators and Solid Energy. Not now.

Only after the electorate has given National a mandate to do so.

Key judges such a move might be unpopular, but not as unpopular as Labour thinks. The same openness will be used in similarly detailing welfare reforms, which will also be controversial. What you will see is what you will get. Key has put considerable emphasis on National being able to be trusted again over the long haul.

Neither does this new version of politician play political games. Hence the announcement of the date of the election months in advance. Neither will this creature sell its soul to cling to power. Hence National will have no truck with Winston Peters.

Goff refused to say whether he will do a deal with Peters. But the question is not going to go away. Unless Goff says otherwise, the assumption will be that Labour will negotiate with NZ First.

This week's moves by Key and their timing were very smart politics. Goff can expect more of the same in coming months from that direction.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent


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