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Peter Wilson: Phil Goff's Big Gamble

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Phil Goff
Phil Goff

Phil Goff has been around a long time. In Parliament for 28 years, a senior minister in the last two Labour governments and a caucus mover and shaker.

So the Labour leader knew exactly what he was doing when he made his "nationhood" speech last week, and he knew how his opponents were going to interpret it.

What he was aiming to achieve was clear enough.

Labour is picking up on what it sees as perceptions that Prime Minister John Key's togetherness with the Maori Party, his bridge-building exercise between Maori and Pakeha, may have gone a bridge too far.

Goff is inviting people to reach conclusions about preferential treatment, and about a National-led government which is giving the Maori Party significant influence in important issues.

Much more influence, in fact, than its right-wing partner ACT, and that may have been one of the reasons for Rodney Hide's recent fit of pique.

To get this message across, Goff chose the emissions trading scheme (ETS) agreement between the Government and the Maori Party and the Foreshore and Seabed Act, which will be repealed when alternative legislation has been prepared.

The ETS agreement was "a shabby and cynical political deal" while the Foreshore and Seabed Act was being reopened for political reasons, not principle.

"In reality it may be no more than simply renaming the existing Act, with pretty much the existing arrangements," he said.

"Or it might be more than that, in which case the Government should tell us."

He left an unspoken question: is the Government making a secret deal with the Maori Party which will disadvantage Pakeha?

Labour has previously said it would work constructively with the Government on replacing the Act, and had acknowledge that it needed amending.

Goff has reversed that and Labour appears to intend fighting the Government over whatever emerges from Attorney-General Chris Finlayson's unenviable task of drafting new laws.

There is rich irony in this.

When Labour put the foreshore and seabed under Crown ownership, National said it wasn't enough. Beaches are for everyone, they cried, even though Labour was making sure they were for everyone.

And Goff last week: "Access to the beaches is a birthright for New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha alike, and must be preserved."

In these matters, Goff finds sufficient concern to warn: "We can choose our future based on principle and with the interests of all New Zealanders at heart. Or we can have a country where one New Zealand is turned against another. Maori against Pakeha, in a way that Labour strongly rejects."

Inevitable comparisons are being drawn between Goff's speech and the one made by the then National leader Don Brash at Orewa, when he called for an end to preferential treatment for Maori.

Aided by the priceless publicity of having a lump of mud thrown at him, Brash's speech sent National surging ahead of Labour in the polls.

Goff hasn't been as direct as Brash was but he hopes for the same result, he hopes to tap into discontent over what people may see as the Government pandering to Maori.

Brash's Orewa speech and the impact it had frightened the Labour government at the time, and it set about fixing anything that could be seen as preferential treatment.

Helen Clark, prime minister at the time, said the Orewa effect wouldn't last and she was right. But Labour knew if Brash had made that speech three months out from an election it would have had real problems.

Goff clearly believes the issue isn't going to go away this time because the Foreshore and Seabed Act is unfinished business and there is a lot more to be said about the ETS and the deal that advantages five iwi.

This is high stakes politics. The Government shrugged off the speech, describing is as "a masterpiece of confusion and hypocrisy", but the Maori Party was beside itself.

Co-leader Pita Sharples accused Goff of dragging New Zealand into the gutter of racial politics in a bid to improve his poor poll ratings, while Te Ururoa Flavell and Rahui Katene lashed him as well.

In the same way Brash opened a rift between National and Maori with his Orewa speech, Goff is driving a huge wedge between Labour and the Maori Party.

If this doesn't work for Labour all Goff will have done is drive National and the Maori Party even closer together.

He has already alienated some of Labour's left-wing supporters, evidence of that is in the blogs they run.

And, worst of all, his judgment will come under question. National will laugh at him and say it was a desperate move which failed.

His caucus, looking for a boost in the polls before going into the summer recess, will be disappointed.

Goff must have known this before he put stakes in the ground over the ETS and the Foreshore and Seabed Act. He must have known that if the polls refuse to move, he will be seen to have failed.

If it does work, and Labour starts picking up votes from people worried about the direction the Government is taking through its closeness to the Maori Party, he will have positioned Labour to make even bigger gains between now and the next election.

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