From the archives: Phil Goff's first interview with Metro

by Metro Magazine / 22 November, 2016
Phil Goff with his family in 1985. Photo / Ken George

In his first interview with Metro magazine in November 1985, aged 32, Phil Goff spoke to Lesley Max about his fast track progress from boy MP to then youngest ever Cabinet Minister.

What’s the motivation, in general?

“It’s seldom money. My salary was trebled, but others, like Trevor de Cleene and Fred Gerbic, have suffered a drop in salary. Salary would make no difference to someone like Mike Moore, for example. Most people on our side go into Parliament in pursuit of a desire to make society work better.
“I don’t think I’ll be in politics at 60. My experience is that you give your best when something is new and challenging. At the end of four years teaching at university, I felt I’d done that, I’d enjoyed it, but it was the end. I worked for a trade union for 18 months. I could have done more there, but at the end of four years, I’d have peaked and declined.
“Just being a constituency MP can be a careers in itself. The housing ministry I enjoy. When I feel I know all I need to know, and I’ve implemented all I can, it might be the time to master another portfolio.”

What kind of career could be satisfying after you’ve been a cabinet minister?

“I’d like to learn a couple of languages; I’d like to travel more. When you travel overseas as Minister, it’s all briefings and meetings. After I left university we travelled for a year. I worked illegally in the US in a deli while Mary was out the back with the Mexican ‘wetbacks’.
“I wouldn’t be averse to teaching again. After all, what else is there with the same scope of opportunities? I always loved teaching mature students. Tutorials would go on and on and I learnt so much.”

Do you see yourself as a possible prime minister?

“I certainly wouldn’t like to be PM right now. The strains are immense, and you see virtually nothing of your family. The danger, though, is in not getting promotion when you’re ready. There’s the other danger of being promoted ahead of your ability. Bill Rowling was thrust into the prime ministership before he was ready, and before he wanted it. It was tragic for him – a superb minister, and now a superb ambassador.
“There’s a real hunger and ambition needed – the only thing to keep you moving in a superhuman task. I’d prefer to work in a number of portfolios over time, developing skills and the experience necessary if the opportunity ever arose and the ambition was there. I’m quite contented now, quite fulfilled in what I’m doing, but down the track, circumstances change.
“If you don’t seize that opportunity when it’s there, it might never come again. In fact, it’s not easy to get into Parliament. It’s often a question of timing, and the best people don’t necessarily get in.”

What created your political awareness so young?

“Mine was clearly a Labour family. My father was interested in politics, and my grandmother was very political, with fond memories of the Savage government. She was part of that whole generation of people home from WWI into a world supposedly fit for heroes, and then having the disillusionment of the Depression. Savage was a symbol of what the whole government stood for.
“I also had a really good teacher, Ton Burrows, at Papatoetoe High School. He’s now at Opunake. He gave me a concept of what New Zealand is, through its history, without loading it politically. Good teachers are so important in the development of society. In my case, the family and school environment reinforced each other.
“I left home about 16 and flatted with my brother who was in the Labour Youth Movement, and with Mike Moore. Both influenced me and pushed me along. I would probably have underrated my own abilities, as most people do. They pushed me into the candidacy for Roskill. The gut feeling in the Labour Youth Movement at that time could have been called raving left wing socialist.”

How do you feel about the country now?

“I’m optimistic about New Zealand society. There are great opportunities, because of the nature of the country and the resources that exist. There’s an element of truth even in those myths about equality of opportunity. I sit down and watch Telethon and get a bloody good feeling, with so many people acting in such a selfless way. It was the same with Live Aid.
“Sometimes you feel annoyed, when someone grizzles, and you feel, God, what did I make the effort for? My feeling though, is that we can create a better society here than any other in the world.
“I was out running one morning, carrying Morning Report with me, and some character from the US State Department was making an arrogant statement suggesting that New Zealand couldn’t make independent decisions with regard to foreign policy. My adrenalin was flooding so fast, I got through my run five minutes earlier than usual!
“This independence, standing on principle, goes back to the 30s, when New Zealand refused to sell scrap iron to the Japanese. We were one of two nations in the League of Nations to condemn Italy – the other was the Soviet Union – for invading Eritrea. And look at Peter Fraser’s involvement with the United Nations. These are things we’ve done, disproportionate to our size.
“On the one hand I deplore nationalism for what it can do, yet on the other hand, it can motivate a nation. Why shouldn’t we have that right in an insane world? I don’t think I’m naïve about it and that the world will change overnight.
“I was in Australia at the time David Lange was in the Oxford Union debate, and even though there was some disappointment with him, there was also admiration.
“We’re a reasonable nation, with a heel of a lot of economic problems, but we’re a nation that can come through it. We’re doing reasonably well in tourism, for example, and we bloody well should be able to.
“If you get a government that speaks to the worst side of New Zealand, they’ll respond accordingly. If they get another kind of government, they’ll also respond accordingly.
“Norman Kirk use to say that everyone needed a job, a home, and something to hope for. It’s that spiritual dimension that’s really important. In New Zealand now there is that reawakening sense of something to hope for. Our future to adapt to a changing world was a problem, but now there are changes coming, and people perceive there is something changing/ In the Muldoon years, everyone was under a control. Big Brother was always there. June and July of last year were a rejection of all that.”

How do you measure that mood? Is it more than a subjective assessment?

“I hold a big public meeting every year in my electorate. I explain what’s happening, and I get a feeling back. Last year’s budget meeting – I’d sent 10,000 pamphlets out – was very bloody tough. People came along with an axe to grind. This year’s meeting was very different – in spite of the best efforts of Trevor de Cleene.”

How do you develop the assurance, and the thick skin necessary to survive in politics, without becoming arrogant?

“Politics can really hurt you. For months, after we were dumped in Eden in 1975, I was really depressed. But you do develop a self-defence mechanism though I think I’m probably a little too sensitive. I’ve tried to guard against becoming cynical and using that as a defence mechanism. I’ll listen to others and have the flexibility, I hope, to see if someone else is right/ I’ll reflect on criticism, and see if I can or should change anything. If you try and manipulate people, you lose your self-respect, which can be the only thing left to you. If you become conniving and manipulative, it’s yourself that you’re destroying.
“You should never try to be what other people want you to be, either as a person or as a government. Bill Rowling was never a dominant or domineering personality, and it was our political mistake to encourage him to try to give more of that impression.
“I’ve learned that naiveté is something you can’t afford in government. I’ve learnt that the real world isn’t rational and logical. There’s ignorance and misunderstanding in the top level of politics as well. And I used to think that decisions were made rationally, on the basis of good information.”

How are you handling the lobbying on the homosexual law reform bill, given that nature of this electorate?

“I give everyone who rings the time of day, I listen to what they want to tell me, but I’ll vote in favour of that Bill, because that’s what I believe in. I don’t believe I’ve come under great pressure, because people know I’ve made up my mind. The electorate can judge me.”

Presumably you can take this approach a little more comfortably in this seat, with your 4000 majority?

“In 1975, the majority here was 500. It’s not a safe seat, and I’ve never treated it as a safe seat.”

How do you interpret the Timaru by-election message?

“Baz had been a figure of reassurance in Timaru for years. Our candidate I have respect for, but she was perceived as an outsider.”

Do you think the people on the labour side of the house are generally more socially conscious, more benevolent, than the Nats?

“You’d expect me to say yes, and I will say yes. The Labour Party grew out of a Labour movement born in social injustice, to create a better world. If we, as a Labour government, couldn’t produce a better country in terms of housing and education and social policy, we’d have lost our reason for being.
“The National Party has a different philosophy, more business and farming orientated. They ask, how can we manage things efficiently to promote those interests? A National MP won’t necessarily lack that conscience, though.”

Couldn’t it be argued that the distinctions between the two are currently blurring?

“We’ve developed a more market-orientated philosophy, simply as a means to an end; whereas economic management in the National Party is the end, rather than the means.
“People who see Rodger Douglas as hard and uncompromising are quite wrong. He’s a third generation Labour party politician, who sees the naiveté of some of our members. He sees state control as a poor means to a poor end.”

Will the Anderton faction present a threat to the government?

“Jim Anderton will end up, because of his personality, alienating much of the support he could have amassed.”

Do you see Margaret Wilson, who is considered to be his protegee, able to control him?

‘His protegee? I don’t think so. She is most definitely her own person. Margaret Wilson has taken action she considers is required, in the best interests of the party. She has to steer this party between two dangers – one of being directionless, because it is rent by division, and the other being a party intolerant of criticism from within. The trouble arises when ulterior motives start to appear.”

What kind of foreign policy do you want New Zealand to pursue?

‘We should be independent, not a lackey to anyone. We might be allied to the United States, but we take out own stand on nuclear issues. We don’t distinguish between the Soviet wish to dominate Afghanistan and the American wish to dominate the nations of Central America.
“You don’t sell out your integrity. The greatest weakness in the foreign policy of the National government was the sacrifice of integrity for the wish that we’d be helped in time of trouble.
“However, I’m not a pacifist. I respect the courage of pacifists, but I think they’re wrong.”

Is there an anti-American feeling in the Labour Party?

“I don’t think there’s an anti-American feeling in most Labour Party members, despite what someone will say who gets a bit of TV time in a conference.
“I have bitter bloody arguments with relatives in the States, but you couldn’t have that bitter argument in Poland or Rumania. You don’t have that common basis in democracy. There is the residue of Vietnam affecting feeling here towards the Americans, but at least there could be disagreement within America as to their country’s policy. Compare that with Russia.
“And look at the decision of the Supreme Court in doing away with the machinery of racism. Look at the concept of bussing. Could we get away with that here? No on your life.”

You used to give your opposition, Tony Friedlander, a very hard time when he tried to convey the impression that there wasn’t a housing problem. Are you in that situation now, or trying, as minister, to make the situation look rosier than it is?

“The worst thing that you can do is to try and fool yourself and there is no problem. I talked about a 10 year programme to resolve housing needs. The important thing I need to demonstrate is our will to tackle those problems.
“I think I was very successful in the share of the cake that I got. Roger Douglas had been Minister of Housing and he could recognise a well-researched case. We have some fairly fierce goes at each other, but he has a South Auckland consciousness of the problem.”

How can home life be sustained in your job? Are you afraid of distancing yourself from your family? Afraid of divorce, which seems par for the course for MPs?

“Have you ever heard of passive resistance? Mary is terrific. She’ll put up with all sorts of bloody things. She won’t say anything, but by God I’ll feel it! It would be very hard to do what I’m doing without her support. It’s ironic – we preach the family, and our careers make hypocrites of us. She ‘carries’ the family, and I regret it, but there’s no way I can do this job 90%. It has to be 100%. She’s supportive and understanding of that, which isn’t to say she’s not resentful, because sometimes she is.
“The last thing you need in politics is the trauma of the breakdown of marriage, and there’s no way two partners in a marriage can each have high-powered careers. One parents needs to be there to put the time in. It needn’t be the woman, Anne Fraser’s husband, for example, fulfils that role.
“I’m sometimes not very proud of myself. I can spend the whole morning being patient and understanding with constituents, and come in, and the kids will be yelling, and all my pent-up irritations comes pouring out.”

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