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Q+A's Guyon Espiner Interviews Labour Leader, Phil Goff

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Phil Goff
Phil Goff

Points of interest:

- The Electoral Finance Act and looking into Key's finances in the election campaign were "mistakes we stopped listening"

- Goff promises no income tax rise under Labour, but "would look at" a capital gains tax

- Opposition will support the planned referendum on MMP, but Goff would vote for MMP

- Labour considering a policy cutting the number of list MPs to 40 and increasing electorate MPs to 80

- Goff refuses to rule out Winston Peters as a coalition partner

- Labour will focus on winning back the working class "by showing that most [Labour MPs] have come up the same route"

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning's Q+A can be seen on at,


GUYON: Phil Goff thank you very much for joining us on the programme this morning we really appreciate that.

PHIL: It's a pleasure.

GUYON: The biggest issue in Politics this year has been the economy. This week we saw both the Treasury and the Reserve Bank saying that we may be coming out of this recession more strongly than was expected and that unemployment was going to peak at 7.5% - well below what some had predicted. A lot of kiwis would be thinking right now, wouldn't they, that this government has handled this recession quite competently?

PHIL: Well I certainly hope we are coming out of the recession - internationally you're seeing signs of recovery in economies and really important economies too. It's like China now - our exports to China have gone up 62% in the last year since our free trade agreement. Australia is doing well, never went into recession. Those things will help New Zealand and it'll also help New Zealand of course that we went into it with one of the lowest levels of unemployment in the western world, and a zero net government debt. That gives the new government some room to move in terms of borrowing to keep the economy going.

GUYON: But you've been very critical of National and the way it's handled this recession - really this shows they've actually done quite a good job doesn't it?

PHIL: Oh look, we've been constructive where we think that the things have been helpful to New Zealand, we've been critical where we think it's been more window dressing than reality and the Jobs Summit of course comes into that category. It's easy for an Opposition to be relentlessly negative - we're trying hard not to do that, we've been constructive where we think we can assist the government, I work closely with somebody like Tim Grocer - development of National Markets, good for New Zealand. But when we think the Government is not actually understanding and listening to people, the people that are hurting because they're losing their jobs, the families that are struggling because it's really hard to make ends meet at the moment, their real income going down, their costs still going up.

GUYON: This is quite a change in emphasis for you though isn't it because I've listened to you most of the year - you've called the nine day fortnight a flop, you've laughed and been very de-riding about the cycle way, and other Job Summit initiatives - now you seem to be saying well actually they're doing Ok and we'll help them where we can!

PHIL: No, no we've always said that, we've always been prepared to acknowledge when particular initiatives come forward, yes we think that's the right thing to do. But our role in opposition is also to keep the Government, or hold the Government, to account and where you've got a situation where 2,000 jobs a week have been lost each and every week this year, you've got to say more emphasis needs to go on to preserving jobs.

GUYON: You were employment minister from 1987 to 1989 when unemployment doubled to 124,000. You knew then, and you know now, you simply can't wave a magic wand and turn back a recession and create jobs!

PHIL: There is no magic wand you're quite right about that, but it doesn't mean to say a Government has to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

GUYON: Is that what they've been doing? Because you've been arguing that they should have put more stimulus into the economy, we should have spent more money, don't you.

PHIL: Look I was on side with people like Rob Fyfe who said back at the time of the Jobs Summit, that if you're going to have tax cuts give it to those families who are struggling to make ends meet so that they will go out and spend it, that'll keep businesses going, that'll keep people in jobs.

GUYON: But I wonder whether you've ended up on the wrong side of this argument, in that you were arguing for more stimulus, more government spending to kick start the economy - now it looks like much of the World, like Australia and America, are debating whether they need to scale back on their economic stimulus because they risk sparking inflation?

PHIL: If you recall I said it's not so much the amount of money you're putting in, because all Governments have a limit to how much money they can spend, it's where you put it and how much value you get for each dollar that's spent. You give a dollar to a hardworking, struggling family who will spend it immediately and it'll stimulate the economy. If you give it to someone who's on $250,000 a year, they'll put it in the bank, it'll have no impact. I think that was the point I was making at the time, and I think I was right.

GUYON: Let's look at an area that National has cut back on, and that is the Public Service. Now you've been very critical of that, you were in the short speech you made yesterday. In eight consecutive years in Government the Public Service grew 5.5% when economic growth was not much more than half of that. Is that the sort of levels of Public Service explosion really that you want to return to if you should take the reins of Government again?

PHIL: Well we think it's great that there were 3 or 4,000 extra nurses that were employed in the Public Service while Labour was in Governmentthat the numbers of Police Officers out on the beat went up by 1,250.

GUYON: Yes, but they're the glamour examples though. There were a lot of policy analysts and a lot of others.. How can you sustain a 5.5% growth in the Public Service when your economy is only growing at half that level?

PHIL: Because at the time the economy was growing fast

GUYON: at half that rate though.

PHIL: As you'll recall Guyon, is that what happened in the 1990s was that the Public Service was gutted so you come into, you know I was Minister of Trade, Minister of Foreign Affairs, you really had to be sure that you had enough people there to give the advice that you could maximise the benefits that you could gain for New Zealand. It's not the number, it's the quality and what people are doing - sure you've always got to look at efficiencies, nobody wants to take on people to feather the bed. We've taken on people like Quarantine Officers who have now been dismissed - the greatest threat to the New Zealand economy is if we get something like foot and mouth in New that a good area to keep up?

GUYON: OK, I know you've been critical of that. Let's look at some of the spending that might be happening should You be in Government - you've got two billion dollars a year to return the contributions to the super fund, there's basically a billion dollars to restore Kiwisaver, another billion on the fast forward fund and the R&D tax credits - that's four billion dollars without a single new promise. Where's the money going to come from?

PHIL: In Government you do what is responsible, you do what you can do with the resources that are available. We've said a number of things yes about kiwi saver - you can't tell people that they can keep getting entitlements if you stop funding those entitlements. And the advice given to the government if you recall, was that if you put the money into the New Zealand super fund as Labour had done for about eight years, then that was not going to affect your credit rating . That was going to return more on the investments for sure than it cost.

GUYON: And are you sitting here this morning saying you would restore all those things, in other words add four billion dollars extra spending?

PHIL: You've got to look at the situation when you go in - we'll set out what we're going to do in 2011 when we know what the situation is, the overall international situation, the fiscal position of New Zealand. In nine years Labour governed this economy responsibly and we'll govern it just as responsibly but it is about priorities and this is the key difference. For example, we just cut night school - 80% percent cut in night school classes

GUYON: I don't to revisit it again

PHIL: ..When you put money into private education. That wouldn't have been our priority.

GUYON: Can you say whether you would raise personal income tax, can you rule out this morning raising personal income tax should you take power again?

PHIL: It's not our intention to raise personal income tax, nor GST - it may well be this government's intention to raise GST.

GUYON: What about Capital Gains Tax? It looks like National is contemplating that idea - it's the sort of thing that would need a political consensus to happen, what's your view on whether we should have some form of Capital Gains Tax?

PHIL: Well you wouldn't get a Capital Gains Tax on people's homes, that's absolutely out of the question, that's an absolute bottom line. I'm looking at what the government comes up with, what they put to us. If they put a case to us which is persuasive then we'd look at it, we don't have a closed mind, but that doesn't immediately appeal to us as a key priority for any incoming government.

GUYON: Can I move to Strategy if you like - there's been a bit of a strand the last couple of days that you've preparing for this conference, that Labour was going to apologise for the mistakes of the past. I wonder what sort of apology it is when you make it a year on? It strikes me as a sort of apology you make when you think that's what people want to hear rather than a genuine act of contrition.

PHIL: Well I think there are two things. Firstly Labour was re-elected three times so there were a lot of things that Labour did that ordinary New Zealanders thought were the right things to do. I think the concern we have, the concern that I've been articulating, is that as we were longer in government we stopped listening to people that was clear..

GUYON: ..Over what issues?

PHIL: Oh a whole variety of issues. The perception that people had was that while they were struggling to make ends meet the Labour Party was focused on other things

GUYON:what were those things?

PHIL: The sort of things that were highlighted I guess in the Media - the electoral finance act, I acknowledged after the election that was a mistake - it was badly handled, it should have been done better. The focus that seemed to be on smacking when actually most people are concerned about 12,000 kids a year who are being seriously abused and neglected. It was the little things about light bulbs or shower heads - people saw that, those were the issues that were blown up in the Media and it looked like we were focussed on things that were other than what people's aspirations and concerns were.

GUYON: But that was just a perception thing.

PHIL: No, obviously we've been focussed on key things - working for families, kiwi saver - those were the things that made a real difference but increasingly this government isn't listening, this government is not talking about things that are important to us.

GUYON: You and your party, the Labour party, went after John Key very heavily in the last election campaign, you made the whole campaign about trust - the idea was that you couldn't trust John Key. The party president was dispatched to try and dig up dirt on decades old deals to try and find some wrong-doing. Is that something that you're apologising for this weekend as well, the way that you handled that?

PHIL: I think that both sides in Parliament probe the other side to check whether promises being made are promises being made with integrity. That will always happen in an adversarial system. I think the publicity and the looking at the finances around Mr Key at the last election WAS a mistake yes.

GUYON: Do you trust Mr Key?

PHIL: Look, I think like most New Zealanders, the government of Parliament goes in wanting to do the right thing for the country

GUYON: but do you trust him?

PHIL: Do I believe that what is being said is always what is on the agenda, I'd have to say no. I mean they employ spin doctors, and the role of spin doctors is to have the Prime Minister saying what people want to hear.

GUYON: do you trust him?

PHIL: I would hope that he would deliver on the things that he's promised but there are already things that have been promised that haven't been delivered and you know those as well as I do.

GUYON: You talked about spin doctors, but every party employs them and in fact it looks you are employing them pretty heavily this weekend. I mean it's an image makeover though isn't it - you've tried desperately to make yourself look more human, look more relaxed, look more casual haven't you?

PHIL: Ah, look when you talk about spin doctors we don't have an agency like the Australian agency

GUYON: but that's more image

PHIL: No look obviously you think, particularly when you become leader of the opposition, there's a different role you have to perform, there are different sides of you that people have to see. I've spent most of my political career trying to protect my family from politics, I didn't want them in the full glare of politics. But suddenly people say "look we don't know anything about you, we don't know what your family is, we don't know you've got two boys and a girl". So clearly in the role I'm playing now I've got to become a little more open about the sort of things that once upon a time I would've like to have kept personal.

GUYON: You lost the working class at the last election , a good strand of them, in some pretty important seats like Waitakere and other areas, Chris Trotter calls these people the sort of guy who likes to have a few beers on a Sunday afternoon sitting on a deck that he built himself. How do you win those people back next time?

PHIL: It's a point well made and I think you've got to win back those people by those people perceiving you to understand what their concerns are and what there hopes are.

GUYON: And how do you do that?

PHIL: I think by showing that most of us have come up by that same particular route, I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I grew up in a working family - we worked hard for everything we got. I've got my family that I've worked hard to bring up, I can identify with those people . I've got two sons who are tradesmen. They are exactly the sort of people that Chris Trotter gave as a Waitakere man. Those are the sorts of things that they're interested in - I believe I'm in touch with those things.

GUYON: Just in the last couple of minutes that we do have left, I'd like to talk about some of the machinations of MMP and how that might work for Labour. You had a lot of political parties and support when you were Government, they've all disappeared to National. Would you support, or welcome, the return of Winston Peters whose NZ First party was a key ally for Labour?

PHIL: That's a decision that Winston Peters has to make for himself - I'm not about to give him any advice

GUYON: But the voters want to know is there a place for Winston Peters in a few years time to become a part of Government?

PHIL: There's a place for anybody who is prepared to work on-side Labour for the values, the ideals, and the policies that we put forward. I don't rule out Winston Peters any more than I rule out the Green Party, the Maori Party or the United Future Party and obviously the Progressive Party already works very closely with us in opposition. We will work and this is what MMP requires, we will work with whoever is prepared to form a constructive coalition with us to deliver to the people of New Zealand the things that we believe that they hope for and they need.

GUYON: And we have a referendum to this whole electoral system, what is Labour's position on that? 1997, as Justice Spokesman, you called for a binding referendum on MMP whether we should chuck it out or not, what's your view now?

PHIL: I think if you're going to change the system it MUST be with the mandate of the people and that must be by a binding referendum.

GUYON: So you support going for a referendum?

PHIL: yes, we're not opposing the Government on that at all

GUYON: ..How would you vote?

PHIL: At this stage I'd probably vote for MMP but we've had at this conference quite an interesting discussion about that and the members I've talked to have said look we'd like to see fewer list MP's and more Electorate MP's. We'd like to see electorates a little bit smaller so that electorate members can give a bit more personal attention to their constituents. Our people tell me that we can do that, we could have as many as 80 electorate MP's with the balance of 40 being list MPs. It may be that we're looking for a variation on MMP to make it work better, to use its strengths to counteract its weakness.

GUYON: Ok, the next election will certainly be fought under MMP, is this your one and only shot at being Prime Minister?

PHIL: Oh no, it's my first shot and I'll make any decision after that. We have only one plan and that's to go out and campaign to win the trust and the confidence of New Zealanders to win in 2011 in the same way that we won handsomely in the Mt Albert bi-election in June of this year.

GUYON: Just a trite question - it's a genuine question - voters might want to know whether they can give you two shots. They might be thinking well he's not quite ready yet for this job, but if I know he's going to stay on then they might give him a shot so can you tell those voters today whether this is your one and only shot?

PHIL: No, I can't do that because I will make a judgement on the conditions of the time. Our plan is to go out to win their trust, their confidence in 2011. We showed in Mt Albert when we listened to people, when we get alongside communities, when we talk on their behalf, we can do that and we did do that.

GUYON: That's pretty much all we've got time for so thank you very much for joining us, I appreciate us.

PHIL: Thanks very much.

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