Gordon Campbell on the new Labour leadership

Not unexpectedly, Phil Goff’s first press conference as Labour leader did include a mea culpa of sorts for the “disconnect’ that had occurred in Labour’s relations with the New Zealand public – although the who, how and why of this inexplicable fault in the wiring was not fleshed out with any specifics. The mood of the new trio at the top ( Goff, deputy Annette King, Finance spokesperson David Cunliffe ) was resolute and upbeat.

The mandatory nods to inclusiveness were made. Why, Goff explained, if the new government did good things for New Zealanders then the Labour opposition would support them, but woe betide if the reverse should happen. Here Goff cited a curious trio of possible evils in waiting : the privatization of ACC, the dissection of Kiwisaver and the removal of r & d tax credits.

Somehow, I doubt whether the business sector’s imminent loss of their r&d tax credits is the topmost concern for Cleaners Union members in south Auckland this morning, but I could be wrong. On balance though, there are genuine reasons for the new captain to be feeling chipper. No blood was spilled during the transition. With the exception of the Electoral Finance Act, there are few policy positions that need to be recanted and amended. Much of Labour’s policy programme over the last few years has in fact, already been embraced by John Key.

Moreover, Goff begins his quest to regain power with a sizeable caucus crew. As he pointed out, the public this time has left Labour with a caucus of 43 MPs, a far cry from the 27 left after the rout in 1990. In contrast with that humiliation, people were also not particularly angry with the Labour government, he feels, but were simply….tired of it.

It remains unclear whether Labour realizes that one of the things that people got tired of was the sense of being patronized – and Goff hasn’t banished that fatal air of superiority from his own delivery. “Time will tell whether the changes proposed,” he said, almost wagging his head at the possible folly, “will be what the public were lead to believe.”

Yes, the public may one day come to rue the change they sought on Saturday. But if and when they do, there is no guarantee that a paternalistic Labour would be the only, or best source of relief. The Greens, now that they are finally free from any structural ties to Labour, will be trying hard to supplant them as the most effective opposition party on the left. On industrial relations and beneficiary issues, the Greens have already been making much of the running in recent years. If Labour remains intent on projecting a kinder, more efficient brand of centrism, they could well be overtaken significantly on their left – and the risk will be increased if Act does manage to pull National further to the right.

At this point though, just what Act is getting from their dealings with Key remains unclear amid the noise of Rodney Hide playing to the galleries. If attacking Key on Sunday night as being to the left of Helen Clark on some issues wasn’t bad enough, Hide took time yesterday to bicker about the unseemly ambition of his new partner in government, Peter Dunne – perhaps in payback mode for Dunne’s own crack on election eve that Act represented the sound of “economic jackboots.”

Maybe its just as well these guys won’t be in the same Cabinet room together. Safe to say, if it was the Greens and Progressives behaving this way, editorials up and down the country would be thundering about the irresponsibility of such behaviour in a time of national crisis.

Obviously, much of Key’s hopes for a wider consensus will depend in the next few days on whether the Maori Party takes the bait, and comes on board with National. Why they would want to do so remains a mystery – because being a Minister isn’t a free lunch, and entails wider responsibility for the government to which said Minister belongs. Especially if a big portfolio like Social Welfare is in the offing. Taking on such a role would turn the Maori Party into the local version of the Palestinian Authority, as the enforcement arm of the National Party on welfare – and one operating under economic settings into which the Maori Party would have no direct input at the Cabinet table, let alone control.

Scale the ambitions back down to a smaller portfolio – such as Broadcasting – and the minimal gains possible would then need to be judged against the shared blame for anything the new government may choose to do to Maori families and workers. Being outside Cabinet by then may not be distance enough. Dr Pita Sharples could find that the credibility of his criticism of government will suffer somewhat, if it is being delivered from the back seat of a ministerial limousine.