Say what you want about David Lange – and I’m more disinclined than most to minimise his role in the great New Right experiment we insist on calling by the name of his finance minister – but his valedictory speech was the act of an honourable man.
It’s not that he used it to disown his government’s reforms, which would have been hypocritical and ultimately infuriating. On this count he mounted what was by then already a predictable, rote defence. ‘We are unlike the country we were [in 1984],’ he conceded,
and there is good and bad in that. But the balance of history will be that it was for the good.However, instead of leaving it at that, as most of his accomplices have done before and since, Lange pivoted to a most unusual conclusion, beginning with a phrase that has stayed with me since the first time I read the speech: ‘I want to thank those people whose lives were wrecked by us.’ He then proceeded to dedicate the last minute of his time in parliament to an acknowledgment of the human consequences of his actions as a politician. ‘It was just terrible.’ He concluded. ‘That is the sort of thing that happened, and I am deeply aware of that.’
|A Dominion Post file photo used in this profile|
Of Rogernomics – as a minister, Goff was in Douglas’ camp – he had little to say, and even managed to gloss over having introduced tertiary fees when he was in charge of education (an act that inspired this immortal ditty). His continuing allegiance to the reforms didn’t prevent him from lamenting the existence of ‘two New Zealands’ in the only half-memorable speech he gave during his wretched time as leader of the Labour Party. That the growing inequality he railed against was the product of the reforms he had been instrumental in implementing never bothered unduly either his conscience or his intellect.
Throughout his career, Mr Goff remained steadfastly loyal to the same set of platitudes. Already in his inaugural speech he pined for the good old days of full employment and for the conditions that allowed him to ‘pay [his] own way through [his] studies’. (I know; the irony is blinding me as well.) That first speech, in fact, with its appeal to ‘betrayed values’, is remarkably similar to his ‘two New Zealands’ speech of 2010 and today’s valedictory. We might be tempted to interpret this fact as a remarkable sign of ideological consistency, but it is nothing of the kind.
Lamenting the loss of an egalitarian past – however mythical – while enacting (or, post-facto, rationalising and defending) the most brutal programme of deregulation a western country has experienced to date is not only a daring act of rhetorical acrobatics; it also signals to what extent ‘Labour values’ have become a shibboleth, or a set of quasi-magical phrases to be uttered in order to signal one’s tribal affiliation, whilst being utterly divorced from the real lives of working people and those who wish they could work.
As one of the principal architects of the TPP, Goff obtained a special dispensation from his party to vote against its current line and in favour of its implementation. This was a rare gesture of coherence, marking him as probably the thirdwayest of all third way politicians in the world today. Had he followed Douglas and Prebble into ACT – and I don’t know if or to what extent he was tempted to, during his term in the wilderness in the early nineties – he would have been spared having to ask for such dispensations, or the ignominy of being caught enjoying Sky City’s corporate hospitality against his leader’s wishes. But then he would not have enjoyed a 32-year parliamentary career, either.
There is a lot of talk in pragmatic left circles about the ‘missing million’, that is to say all those non-voters – many of whom belong to the working class – to which Labour still feels naturally entitled, but that it would rather hector every three years than commit to serving. That missing million is the single clearest piece of evidence that Phil Goff’s political career has been a failure. These people, many of whom have the most at stake whenever social and economic policy is reset – and ought therefore to be vitally interested in politics – have become utterly disengaged from the democratic process. The party putatively in charge of representing their interests doesn’t blame itself. Least of all Phil Goff, who was there the entire time – 14 years as cabinet minister, three years as leader of the opposition, the balance apparently longing for the New Zealand of old – and in his final speech didn’t have a single thing to say about them. Not one.
It takes a special kind of left-wing politician to look back on the last three decades of our history and fail to acknowledge the disenfranchisement of so many. Reversing this process will require a great deal more than the retirement of the Labour MP from Mt Roskill, but it’s a start.