The Labour leader has shown his sincerity over the Hughes case, but was he wise? How safe is his leadership? And where oh where was the plan?

Tomorrow's meeting in Dunedin of the Labour front bench will be somewhat uncomfortable for leader Phil Goff, but his job isn't likely to be in jeopardy. His handling of the Darren Hughes case has got some MPs thinking, 'what was he thinking?', but others genuinely believe the party line that he was "damned if he did, damned if he didn't".

After Hughes let his leader know a few weeks ago that he was subject to a police complaint after a night out drinking, Goff had some hard choices to make, and many political commentators have been incredulous the path he chose. Most specifically, he chose to say nothing and await the certain publicity, rather than control the announcement himself. As Sir Don McKinnon said on Q+A yesterday, he chose to let the ball bounce, rather than take it on the full.

It seems Goff was influenced by legal advice, personal loyalty and his own ethical code. He knew it was inevitable that the news would come out – a police investigation in our tiny capital won't stay secret for long. So it wasn't a matter of a cover-up, but rather a belief that he shouldn't be the one to release the news, a concern not to interfere with the police's work and a pie-in-the-sky hope that they might dismiss the case quickly.

There's no doubting Goff was genuine; the question now is whether he was wise. I think not. Let's tick off each point.

The hope of protecting either Hughes or the complainant was a forlorn one. It was going to come out sooner or later, and the public response would have been the same, regardless of when. The complainant made a choice when speaking to police, and as young as he is, that choice was always going to bring with it a bucket load of public attention at some stage. As for Hughes, surely it would have been better for him to be open and confess to the complaint, rather than be seen as the secretive one. His reputation would have been better protected by an honest and early statement, rather than a delay. There's no reason that Goff had to release the news.

Would it have interfered with the police investigation? Of course not. Open justice is a cornerstone of our system. The police often undertake their work in the full glare of media attention; this would have been challenging, but hardly beyond the pale. The rest is spin.

Loyalty? I suspect this tripped him up, well-intended as it may have been. As I've written, I think Hughes would have been better served by going public anyway. But the perception is that he chose friendship over stewardship. Surely the greater good is not a single career, but the health and integrity of his century-old party and the chance to enact after the next election the policies that party represents. Isn't that always a leader's first duty?

So politically, a daft decision. Or was it? While those who follow politics closely have passed judgment, the voters are yet to show their hand. And voters are people with wayward mates and troubled siblings, not political strategists. Many may be sympathetic to Goff's loyalty to a friend and his sincerity under pressure.

And if Hughes is cleared, Goff may be seen in an even better light.

As McKinnon said, there's a risk in letting the ball bounce. But sometimes the ball sits up and falls straight into your hands. We won't know how the ball has bounced until the next polls, and that's where Goff's future could be decided.

Labour has been steadily polling in the early 30s for much of this term, which is not a terrible platform from which to launch an election campaign, and at least suggests something short of the rout Bill English led National to in 2002. There's no pattern of gaffes from Goff. So the only reason to roll him is if that steady platform starts to crumble.

But even then, his departure is far from certain. A leadership coup would only make Labour's task of forming a government later this year more difficult, perhaps even impossible. And who has the numbers?

Annette King may have been able to harness support a couple of weeks ago, but the Hughes case tarnishes her as much as Goff. And anyway, she's not going to stab her old chum in the back.

David Cunliffe doesn't have the support across caucus (not yet, at least), David Parker is probably seen as too donnish, and a seemingly endless recession is simply the wrong time for the identity politics that would go along with the appointment of Maryann Street or Grant Robertson, regardless of ability. I've never seen Trevor Mallard as a leader, and I don't think the public does either. And if Shane Jones ever decides to make a move, it certainly won't be this term as his post-porn penance isn't done yet.

David Shearer attracted a lot of buzz as a potential leader over the weekend. It appealed inasmuch as Labour's next leader – whoever and whenever that may be – has to be perceived as fresh and transformational. But Shearer is hardly likely to betray Goff, an old boss who gift-wrapped Mt Albert for him and then last week slipped the Education portfolio in with the card as a bonus.

Let's not forget, John Key was seen as incredibly wet behind the ears when he became National's leader after just four years. Shearer hasn't even been in the House two years yet. No, such talk is fanciful for now.

So Goff is safe, at least in part because no clear challenger has yet to emerge. And even if one did, why look to take over now and head into almost certain defeat in November? Better to wait.

But even with his sincerity intact and his job safe, there are two questions Goff hasn't yet answered properly. First, why on earth did he not tell party president Andrew Little about the investigation? That's disrespectful and it clearly looks like a rift between them.

Second, where was the plan? Even accepting Goff's sincerity in his decision to not reveal Hughes' alleged indiscretion, why not have a firm course of action in place for when it ultimately comes out? At least then you can be seen to act swiftly and in the best interest of the party.

But no. Under Goff's leadership, Hughes went from leave on Wednesday, to stood down on Thursday, to resigned on Friday. That, to all eyes, is poor. Hughes should have been ready to resign his portfolios at least, the minute the news leaked.

The story is likely to survive another couple of days, until after the Dunedin meeting; then it will be in Labour's interest to show some discipline and shut it down.

Until the police investigation is complete, of course and it rises again.

Which leaves us with Hughes himself. While the talk has been of his leaders' loyalty to him, what hasn't been said as clearly is just how much he let his party down. He should have known better than to put himself in such a position.

Comments (12)

by Raymond A Francis on March 28, 2011
Raymond A Francis

"then it will be in Labour's interest to show some discipline and shit it down."

Talk about freudian slip

It would have been nice if the Labour caucus had shown some loyalty to Darren and back him while he proved he had "done nothing wrong"

by Todd on March 28, 2011

Not as bad as mine:

Asshole of the Week Award

OK! So we've had an allegation concerning Darren Hughes, one of the Labour ministers. The police have been informed and will appropriately look into the matter. Do we have to have a trial by media who has run the story at the beginning of every news hour for the last four nights? Do we have to have a media beat up when there are far more important things happening in the World?

by Richard on March 28, 2011


The media beatup is largely because of (or at least worse because of) the way that the story came out.

Which is entirely the fault of Labour's leader(s).

They knew about it first. If they wanted to control the way that it was presented in the media, then they should have done so.

by stuart munro on March 28, 2011
stuart munro

@ Todd,

Well of course.

When you have a Murdoch supported government that is somehow managing to do more economic damage than the Christchurch earthquake, the only possible course is attacking the opposition for its moral failings. Shame they have so many.

Goff defended almost ideally. Give the mill no grist and let matters fall as they may. An early dismissal wouldn't've have persuaded anyone all was well, and he'd've been pinged for disloyalty.

by Will de Cleene on March 28, 2011
Will de Cleene

"then it will be in Labour's interest to show some discipline and shit it down."

That's more of a Jungian slip.

by BeShakey on March 28, 2011

I think Matthew Hooten is right when he said on National Radio that Goff was safe because the two groups in caucus that might roll him don't have an incentive to do so.

His poll rating is similar to their last election result, so there isn't a large group of MPs fairful for their seat, who might roll him to put in place a leader they think could save them.

There isn't an alternative leader who looks more capable of winning the election, so potential ministers don't have a reason to roll him to try and get a Cabinet seat.

Until and unless one of those changes Goff will be safe to the election.

by on March 28, 2011

Looking at the long game, Labour need Goff to stay. If they are going to win the next election, they're going to need to win it well to do anything worthwhile...a small majority is not going to be any use with the country in the mess it's in. Unless a miracle happens - John Key gets a job offer in New York - Labour will never win well this time around.

The best scenario for Labour, long term, is that National will likely limp to victory in the next election. With an even more vulnerable majority and what's left of their talent in early retirement (Simon Power - their only talent?). National's next term is likely to be either a muddy attempt by John Key to not look like a failure and seem nice - or a Ruth Richardson inspired mad dash to privatisation. Both of which will hand a big majority to a re-energised Labour Party.

To be effective, the party needs a new approach and new energy - and they don't look like having any of that at the moment.

I'm picking that many within Labour will be wanting Phil to hold on tight and take one for the team...and loose the next election. Hughes is an unfortunate side issue that may ruin that 'plan'.

by Tom Gould on March 28, 2011
Tom Gould

Tim, you leave the real question to last. Hughes should have called a face to face meeting with Goff and King, apologised to them for his monumental selfishness and stupidity, handed them his letter of resignation, and left the building. This sorry saga starts and ends with Hughes. The idea they might let that gutless little fool back into Parliament sometime is simply ridiculous.

by BeShakey on March 28, 2011

"Monumental selfishness and stupidity", you mean in doing nothing wrong (at least from what he claims), or in being accused of something?  It says something bad about you that the issue of whether he actually did anything legally or morally wrong has no bearing on matters.

As well as Goff looking bad over this, a lot of the media and public should be pretty ashamed.

by Tim Watkin on March 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

Tom, I think that over-states the facts as we know them. While I think it's very unwise for an MP, one with responsibilities in the education sector, to be putting himself in potentially compromising positions, we don't know if what happened was illegal or even immoral. Unwise doesn't equate to 'gutless' and 'monumental selfishness'.

Mr Burns... a good take on the long game. Timing is everything.

And the wee slip has been corrected. Oops.

by mudfish on April 02, 2011

Oh so now it's a wee slip. Is that Jungian too?

by Hesiod on April 06, 2011

blah blah blah.

this is all beltway nonsensense.

darren hughes slipped off the greasy pole all by himself.

what are his achievements?

what has he acomplished during his time in parliament.

why has politics in new zealand descended into tit for tat nonsense.

this country has become infantilised and it is time for everyone to grow up.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.