Goff goes blue collar

00:03, Nov 20 2009

Labour leader Phil Goff seems to be trying out a new swagger this week.

It's a kind of blue-collar, leather jacket look that is about as far away from Helen Clark as it is possible to get. And who knows, it might just work.

Goff's seized on the fuss over the proposed hike in ACC fees for motorbikes, addressing the protest rally at Parliament this week and rediscovering his own love of motorcycles, mentioning "my farm bike'' and "my road bike'' every chance he gets.

Judging by the number of bikers who descended on the capital, which security guards say was the largest protest action here since the hikoi over the foreshore and seabed, National might just have misread this issue.

There are early signs of a backtrack from ACC Minister Nick Smith, who is now saying maybe the fees won't go up by as much as first proposed.

Labour leader Phil Goff seems to be trying out a new swagger this week.

It's a kind of blue-collar, leather jacket look that is about as far away from Helen Clark as it is possible to get. And who knows, it might just work.

Goff's seized on the fuss over the proposed hike in ACC fees for motorbikes, addressing the protest rally at Parliament this week and rediscovering his own love of motorcycles, mentioning "my farm bike'' and "my road bike'' every chance he gets.

Judging by the number of bikers who descended on the capital, which security guards say was the largest protest action here since the hikoi over the foreshore and seabed, National might just have misread this issue.

There are early signs of a backtrack from ACC Minister Nick Smith, who is now saying maybe the fees won't go up by as much as first proposed.

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But it's certainly a good issue for Goff to join in on, and reminds me of the attempt by Labour to raise road user chargers on truckies a year or so ago.

Of course, selective amnesia is an essential prerequisite in politics and Labour's leader also seems to have conveniently forgotten the former government's previous approach to affirmative action for Maori, judging by some of his remarks this week.

Labour has identified the fuss around the Emissions Trading Scheme and also Maori Party MP Hone Harawira as fertile blue-collar ground to be mined as well.

Twice in the past week, Goff has played the race card, albeit carefully, by suggesting first that there was one rule for Harawira over his comments about white mo-fos and another rule for other MPs, and then raising the prospect that National's proposed settlement with iwi over the ETS was based on ethnicity.

This is dangerous ground, obviously, and Prime Minister John Key had a crack at Goff in the House over it this week, accusing him of "the worst kind of politics''. This is a bit ironic given National's previous indulgence in precisely this kind of behaviour, but it certainly got a reaction from the Labour leader, who was quick to his feet to demand an apology.

Goff told Parliament he had never indulged "the politics of race'' although I think he protested a bit much. He is clearly trying to send a soft dog whistle to Labour supporters who abandoned his party at the last election because they were fed up with precisely the sort of "pandering to Maori'' that National could now be accused of.

National's protests that it is doing nothing of the sort are equally flustered, however. There's no real way to argue that it is offering a sweetheart deal to some iwi over forestry for any other reason than to get the votes it needs from the Maori Party to pass the ETS.

Yes, Ngai Tahu may have a case that the value of its forests has been lowered by the scheme, but many other owners of pre-1990 forests are in the same boat. The difference is they don't have a Treaty settlement.

It's a moot point as to whether or not they would have been able to prove their case in a court, although personally I think it's unlikely. So did official advice to the Government, which has urged it not to settle because of the chance of setting a precedent.

Certainly it appears Labour had decided not to settle, but the change in political circumstance means it's now likely Ngai Tahu is going to get lucky.

Outside the forestry industry, I don't know whether ordinary Kiwis will be annoyed by this or not. This kind of wheeling and dealing is part of MMP, and it's hardly the first time tradeoffs of this sort have been organised. Labour did it all the time with New Zealand First.

But I get the sense that Goff's political radar, which must be reasonably well-tuned given the length of time he's been in Parliament, senses he might just be on to something here. It's a long game, but if he can position himself as the friend of the worker who's missing out while being collared with higher fees, he might just be able to drive some of those voters back home to Labour.

I say might, because Phil isn't the natural blue-collar type, no matter how many times he tells us that he went to Papatoetoe High School.

Overall though, a pretty reasonable performance from the Labour leader this week.

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