Hard News by Russell Brown


The Secret Code

One of the more entrenched prohibitions in politics is that against uttering the bleeding obvious. When Phil Goff granted last night on Alt TV that there was a "prospect" of his party losing the general election this year, he was, certainly, traversing the obvious. It is implicit in any genuine election that there is the prospect of someone losing.

It would, of course, be more accurate to say that given current polling and bearing in mind the lessons of history, there is a likelihood (but not a certainty) that the New Zealand Labour Party will not gather enough votes to form its fourth government on the trot.

Should that be the case, it's a given that Helen Clark will step down and explore other employment opportunities, most probably on the international stage, and Denis Welch will have a tidy conclusion to the Clark biography he is writing. And, to the surprise of no one at all, Phil Goff will seek to convince his colleagues that he is the best choice for the vacant party leadership.

Goff didn't say that in conversation with Oliver Driver: he merely acknowledged that as the "underdog", Labour faced "a prospect" of defeat and granted that, should that prove to be the case and if Helen Clark subsequently stepped down, he might be interested in the leadership. He also held out a "good chance" that the public might yet recognise the "substance" offered by Clark in comparison to John Key.

To which the political news media responded: OMG! He used the secret code! and set about behaving as if something had been said that no one could possibly have foreseen. Such is the dance.

I wonder if Goff fell prey to the unfamiliar environment in this interview. It happens to politicians sometimes, when they're not talking to members of the club; when questions are differently, more frankly, phrased -- and answered. For all the furious punditry of the last 24 hours, it actually seems fairly unikely that that he would have actively chosen Alt TV as his stepladder to history.

This isn't to bag Alt TV at all -- it's a scoop for them, if one that Ben Thomas had to point out yesterday in NBR. See if you can find the touting in Alt's own press release about the interview. Driver has even said the comments were overplayed by other media.

Goff's subsequent failure yesterday to withdraw the code and strongly insist that he has never even contemplated the top job -- to, in other words, say something that no one would actually take seriously -- offered further licence. In a story under the preposterous headline Goff switches on the clobbering machine, Audrey Young explains the secret code today:

"There is no question about leadership at the moment," he said yesterday when questioned about his pre-recorded television interview.

A seasoned politician who wanted to end discussion about leadership would usually give such an answer unconditionally, without qualifications such as "at the moment".

These things are as much a construction of the media themselves than of politics, a fact that journalists are duty-bound to ignore. Hence, Tracy Watkins intones this morning that the comments are "likely to spark damaging leadership speculation." But where? Oh, right: in the news media.

Labour will be thinking that its fortune is outrageous at the moment, if not in the Goff code breach, then in the unravelling of Mary Anne Thompson's credibility. That could have happened at any time since 1990 -- imagine the fun if Thompson had been shown to have invented her PhD from the London School of Economics when she was made special economic advisor to Treasurer Winston Peters in 1998! -- but it has happened now.

But for all the clattering, the Clark government has its house in far better order than the Shipley government did in may 1999, and National is nowhere near making the positive case for government that Labour was then. The fudge-and-smile nature of National's one big-ticket item, the Big Broadband Promise, demonstrates that well enough.

On a luckier day, Michael Cullen could probably have made more of the IMF's cautionary words about tax cuts, but it's not that day. Nonetheless, even though an MP has uttered the secret code on a pop channel, they'll just press on.

But one more thing: just as there is an implicit "prospect" of any party losing a general election, so there is a "prospect" of Goff losing a leadership vote amongst his colleagues. It would be rather cruel if, like Hillary Clinton, he turned up with his impeccable credentials to discover that his time had passed.

PS: A belated plug for the launch of Drinking Liberally, the Wellington incarnation of the popular international franchise that blends liberal politics with a few cold ones. It kicks off at 6pm tonight at the Southern Cross Tavern in Abel Smith St and the guest speaker is Nandor Tanczos. I'd be there if I was in town.

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