The departing Auckland mayor reflects on a life in politics, his time at the cabinet tables of Lange and Clark, and what a younger, more radical Phil Goff might have made of the politician he has become.
Saturday will turn a new page in the short history of the Auckland super city, as it elects its third mayor. It will at the same time close a chapter on an extraordinary career in New Zealand politics, as Phil Goff signs out after 14 elections and 40 years spanning parliamentary and municipal politics.
In a special edition of the Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime, Goff discusses everything from his time in the cabinets of David Lange and Helen Clark, a stint as Labour Party leader and two terms as mayor. He won’t confirm the widespread expectation that his next role will be as New Zealand high commissioner in Britain, but neither does he remotely deny it. He’s not yet in full diplomatic mode, however, and has some sharp words on the latest upheavals in UK politics.
In an image from 1974, a younger, hairier, more radical Goff is shown in a group including then fellow junior lecturer Helen Clark at a demonstration. What might that young man have made of the mayor today – a pragmatic politician that some even call a technocrat?
“That young man probably thought, we can change the world,” said Goff, now 69 years old. “And we can do it quickly, if only the right people are in the right places. And he probably didn’t understand how complex the world was, that in a democracy, if you want to change the world, you’ve got to persuade other people to your vision.”
He had, he said, chosen the Labour Party over “one of the multiple fringe left groups that were often part of these protests”. He was “always pragmatic, because you know, when you go out and you door knock, and I door knocked from a very young age, you find that the world isn’t just a mirror image of yourself. There are a whole variety of people with different views. And your power to make change depends on your power to persuade those people that what you want to change the world towards, your vision, is a vision that they also share.”
Pragmatic is not a word readily associated with the fourth Labour government. From 1984, Goff had a front row seat to a seismic, highly controversial period in New Zealand politics, with David Lange as prime minister and Roger Douglas running finance. Goff was the youngest in a young cabinet. “It was an extraordinary government to be part of,” he said.
The tone was set, if not defined, by the currency crisis bequeathed by the departing Rob Muldoon. Upon seeing the state of the books, “I thought we will be a one-term government, this is such a mess.”
He said: “Lange used to use the phrase that the country was being run like a Polish shipyard, it was very evocative … And we were like that. We had wage control, rent control, price control. We had big tariffs. We didn’t open ourselves up to trade.” Did they not, for all that, go too far, too fast? “A lot of those changes were hard but necessary. Some of the changes went too far. And some of what Roger Douglas wanted to do after 87 went far too far. I’d been a strong supporter of the fundamental changes that Roger was making. But he lost me, you know, with some of the things [like] having a flat tax. How do you have a flat tax and achieve equity in society?
“So from being a very successful government in the first three years, we then had that terrible disunity between David Lange and Roger Douglas, that caucus was split down the middle. And fundamentally, if you go into an election disunited like that, how could you expect the public ever to have confidence in you? And they didn’t, and we got thrown out.”
When Goff returned to cabinet under Clark, “where we ended up was a far more centrist and traditional position for the Labour Party,” he said. “We still made changes. But we approached it in a different way. But then we weren’t dealing with the crises that the Lange government found itself in, caused by the snap election.”
If, as is expected, Goff heads to London for an ambassadorial posting, he will get a close-up view of a government undergoing its own strange convulsions. While he needed to be “diplomatic” in any assessment of Liz Truss’s explosive, U-turn defined early prime ministership, he did say this: “I was absolutely astounded by the decision that the government took and has since reversed [to cut the top tax rate]. It was never going to fly, it was never right. And you know, the Conservative Party recognised that for itself, but you just wonder how [they] arrived at a position like that. I mean, basic economics tells you that you don’t borrow to pay for tax cuts for people who are already very highly paid and you don’t do it in a way that damages the value of the pound and forces interest rates higher than they would otherwise have gone.”
As for keeping an eye on New Zealand politics, Goff says he won’t be sticking his nose in. “I really don’t want to be, you know, Sam the Eagle or Oscar the Grouch on the sidelines, saying, in my day, this is what we used to do.”