Labour's dangerous, dirty path

The Phil Goff Labour party has slowly been taking shape in recent weeks. Today it veers in an unwelcome new direction, playing the race card

For the Labour Party, the past year has been something like a grieving process. They've gone through various stages of political letting go. At first they copped flak for being in denial and acting as if they still had a right to rule. Then, wisely, they went into themselves and have spent some months re-imaging themselves.

Phil Goff has repeatedly said that this year polls meant nothing, and he had a point. No-one was listening to Labour, it was time to look within and rebuild.

But inch by inch, in the past few weeks, Labour seems to have been casting off its mourning clothes and stepping back out into polite company. We have seen the first signs of the Phil Goff Labour party.

After the year, Goff's Labour has felt able to distance itself from Clark's Labour and the hangover of past governments. The government reports, decisions and outcomes now all belong to National, not to the previous Labour-led lot.

There was the ACC issue and the bikers' levy, and Phil the motorbike guy stepped forward. It was macho and most un-Clark-like. Then we saw Phil the economist, suggesting reform to the Reserve Bank Act, which, while there were no solutions offered, pointed to a broader act that focused our Reserve Bank not just on inflation but on growth and employment as well.

Today, however, Goff's Labour takes it's biggest risk so far. As I write, the Labour leader is due to give a speech in Palmerston North attacking the government's reforms to the emissions trading scheme (ETS) and the deals done with the Maori Party.

It's a speech that aims both barrels at the way the ETS moves the cost of pollution from big emitters to "Kiwi families". Goff says, "It is loading every hardworking family with a bill of $92,000 in today’s dollars". And he's right.

There are some brilliant points in the speech, with Goff shaking his fists at subsidies for polluters and iwi and demanding a fair go for our grandchildren.

But the media coverage of the speech, and its underlying point, is not New Zealand's potential as a clean-tech leader and its environmental obligations to future generations. Sadly, the speech deals heavily in racial politics.

The third part of the new Labour party revealed in recent weeks has been Goff's willingness to go after Hone Harawira and his offensive emails and ill-judged trip to Paris. Labour wants to take on the Maori Party in the Maori seats, and the Maori Party is looking fragile, so Labour's looking for a way to drive a wedge into the Maori Party and its relationship with National. Labour's talk of "Maori elites" benefiting from the ETS at the expense of ordinary Maori is a classic wedge tactic.

Obviously the Labour strategists feel they're getting somewhere, because today's speech goes further. And it's a dangerous approach that has the air of dog whistle racism.

Goff goes to great lengths in the speech to talk of reconciliation and healing between Maori and Pakeha and stresses the importance of Treaty settlements. All good. But he also re-ignite the anger around the Harawira debate, talks of "shabby deals" and, scaremongering, says that National is undermining the full and final nature of Treaty settlements.

It's a sure fire way to get the talkback crowd wound up about Maori privilege. The effect is divisive and looks as if he's trying to exploit the Harawira conflict for the sake of his own political support. A great political opportunity – this disappointing new ETS – is tarnished with what looks like a grab for a short-term poll boost .

Goff says:

We cannot reconcile New Zealanders and make progress together in an environment where hatefulness can flourish, wherever it comes from.

Later he adds:

"If you can never settle Treaty grievances, there can never be healing, and you keep alive a grievance from one age into another.

We must address grievance, but we must not sustain it."

Labour needs to re-connect with the working class in New Zealand, but not this way; not playing to its basest instincts. Harawira's actions are worthy of criticism, but he does not deserve to be turned into a hate-figure.

The Maori Party is not owed a free ride, but this is a size 12 boot, irresponsible approach to race relations. It's not the sort of leadership New Zealand needs; it's not the sort of strategy Labour needs. True leadership raises our eyes to the horizon, it doesn't have us glancing sideways at our neighbours.

It's early days to be talking about legacy, but the Key administration has made brave strides in its relationship with the Maori Party. More than anything else thus far, its racial politics has shown vision and class. It has rejected the dirty tactics of the Don Brash National party and deserves praise for that.

If National's relationship with Maori brings them further into what Brash famously called the "mainstream" of New Zealand life, then history will be kind to John Key and will admire his political courage. Goff should remember that, tread more carefully, and choose a more noble way to raise what are otherwise serious and genuine concerns.