Phil Goff — ‘One of the very best politicians of his generation.’By Russell Marshall
Although voters clearly did not want him to replace John Key as Prime Minister, I am sure that history will regard Phil Goff as one of the very best politicians of his time.
I first became aware of Phil in the mid 1970s. He was then chairing the Labour Youth Council, and wrote to Labour MPs expressing his disappointment at our failure to move on homosexual law reform. (At that time Labour was just beginning to metamorphose from socially conservative ‘working class’ male leadership to university educated socially liberal professionals.)
In 1981 he came to parliament as the MP for Roskill in his late 20s and was elected by the caucus as the youngest Cabinet Minister after the 1984 election.
‘Hard-working and on top of portfolio’
At one time or another over the next six years he held the portfolios of Housing, Environment and Education. At that stage, though he said little, Phil could be counted on as a supporter of Roger Douglas and his policies. He struck me then as very hard working, and was always on top of his portfolio.
When Lange and Douglas finally drove 4th Labour government to disaster at the 1990 election, taking many of the best and brightest with them, Phil lost the Roskill seat but retrieved it at the following election.
I remember writing to him in late 1990 commending him for his leadership of the Education portfolio, and his restoration of some sort of stability after the cavalier and damaging two years of Lange’s tenure.
I used to think that Phil would eventually slow down and that he would eventually work more civilised hours. He hasn’t. His whole period as a Minister in Helen Clark’s government was marked by industry and, on the whole, excellent leadership.
Unhappiness about stance on law and order
I was sometimes unhappy with his stance on law and order as Justice Minister, though he was apparently taking the line his leader wished. However, he became arguably the best Foreign Minister we have had in modern times, fully on top of the detail, able to make his case well and, one felt, always a credit to his country.
When Helen Clark stood down as Labour leader on election night three years ago, Phil Goff was always going to be the only contender.
However, leading an Opposition after nearly a decade on the government benches is not easy, especially up against a Prime Minister with such sustained and impressive public support. I doubt that anybody else could have done better.
Like Arnold Nordmeyer, though never Prime Minister, Phil Goff should be remembered as one of the very best politicians of his generation.