Hard News by Russell Brown


Limping Onwards

It appears that Phil Goff's job as Leader of the Opposition is safe for the time being, but not in circumstances that should give him any comfort at all.

It is fair to sympathise with Goff in having to receive the terrible news from Darren Hughes that Hughes was the subject of a police investigation that could lead to him being charged with a sexual offence.

Hughes -- who has still not been charged -- strongly denied having committed an offence. Had he been stood down, it was inevitable that questions would have been asked. The story would have emerged. But now, it has emerged anyway, and in a far more damaging fashion.

If, as has been reported, Hughes offered his resignation when he informed his leader, and Goff chose to proceed as if nothing had happened, then his decision looks even worse. Because even if the police find no basis for a charge, 32 year-old Hughes attended an event in his capacity as an MP, drank heavily, and took an 18 year-old student back to his house -- the house where he boards with his own deputy leader. That shows a staggering (if perhaps ultimately survivable) lack of judgement.

For Hughes -- personable, intelligent, dedicated and widely respected in Parliament -- it's a tragedy. Political leadership seems to have been his sole trajectory. But this must also be a terrible time for the complainant, a former youth MP whose own ambitions in Parliamentary democracy would never have included this kind of mess.

And there's no point in blaming the news media. As Lew points out in an excellent post on Kiwipolitico, that cannot be where blame lies. Even after the story broke, Goff's office gave it legs for one day after the next by failing to act in "just one move rather than in several successive ineffectual steps which maximise the coverage across several news cycles, including a weekend leading into a Parliamentary recess when political news is going to be thin on the ground anyway."

One factor for which Goff cannot be blamed is the inexplicable conduct of Judith Tizard, formally the next on the 2008 Labour list, but nowhere on Labour's slate for 2011. As Andrew Little forlornly pointed out in interviews, it makes little sense for someone in that position to take up what can only be a six-month job.

Tizard's affectation of shock and surprise that she would be obliged to make this decision was hard to credit. The possibility that she would have to say something must have been apparent for days, yet in the end she said little beyond making a curious plea for sympathy. The hint that she might come back in as some means of payback for Goff was simply bizarre. I regard Judith as a friend, but I have no idea what she's playing at.

And now, apparently, Goff will be sweating on the next round of polls. It's a profoundly undesirable situation brought about by the fact that while Labour has a remarkable slate of future leaders, none is yet in a good position to challenge for the job.

A leadership change six months out from polling day would not look convincing to the electorate. But neither, it must be said, would a party led by Goff. In the wake of the Mt Albert by-election -- which demonstrated a terrible lack of skill in National's lower ranks -- Labour had a high point from which to operate. Instead, its leader has looked uncertain and hesitant; unable to convert political opportunities or express a convincing vision. It's not hard to see him entering the election as hobbled as Bill English was in 2002.

The shame of it is that this is not only a time when Labour needed to execute well, but one when the country needed an effective, aggressive Opposition. What we have now is simply a shambles.

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