Editorial: Goff's mistake was not acting sooner to oust Labour's errant MP

Last updated 05:00 31/07/2010

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OPINION: It's axiomatic that Labour MP Chris Carter has written his political death warrant. The only question that remains is whether he has sealed the fate of his leader, Phil Goff, as well.

Goff's mistake in dealing with this saga was not to have been tougher on his errant MP quite some time ago. It has been evident for months that Carter has been behaving increasingly erratically and with little thought for his fellow caucus members.

Labour front-bencher Trevor Mallard has now admitted that the party's MPs have been concerned about Carter's recent behaviour. He was placed on gardening leave for several weeks after failing to see any wrong with his exorbitant overseas travel expenses for himself and partner Peter Kaiser, for refusing to answer reporters' questions about his expenditure, and for blaming public interest in his spending on the fact that he is an openly gay man.

It appears Carter learned nothing from this enforced break.

On his return, it now transpires, Carter took off for a two-week trip to China and Tibet that was unsanctioned by either his leader or caucus, as is the norm with international travel.

Coming on top of his earlier cavalier disregard for taxpayers' money and several warnings from Goff, such a blatant middle-finger to his leader and the public would alone have warranted his immediate dismissal.

Carter is now explaining away the trip as a diversion attempt by Goff from the real issue of his leadership. He says the Chinese Government paid for his visit, including his airfares.

That is not the issue – it was the fact Carter was AWOL and again showing appalling political judgment.

It is curious, however, that Goff did not act on this information but instead waited until Carter pressed the "nuclear" button on Thursday, writing an anonymous letter to press gallery journalists tipping a leadership coup.

Such a ham-fisted attempt at causing trouble may go down in the annals of history as one of the stupidest acts of attempted sabotage since Guy Fawkes botched the burning of Parliament. It seems more a cry for help than a genuine act of political skulduggery. Goff has now dealt firmly with Carter, sacking him from caucus, and the party hierarchy is certain to dump him formally this weekend.

But while Labour would like this to be the end of the matter, it isn't.

For starters, no-one but the good people of Te Atatu can remove Carter from Parliament, where his face will be a constant embarrassment for Labour until the next election.

The party must also suffer the indignity of having to reopen the selection for the Auckland seat, and find a new candidate, when all logic said it should never have re-selected Carter in the first place.

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And then there's the faint possibility that just maybe Carter's allegations of a coup plot and of "depressed and fatalistic" MPs within the Labour caucus have a ring of truth. It's hardly a secret that there is dissatisfaction within caucus with Goff's performance as leader. His polling is dismal, and there is a feeling he has flip-flopped on several crucial issues, the latest being his agreement with parts of National's industrial relations policies. Goff's fortune is that his main contenders – David Cunliffe and Shane Jones – currently have either insufficient support or have blotted their own copybooks over the recent credit card spending fiasco.

But such a stay of execution will only be temporary.

Goff is probably safe until the election, but he must improve his performance if he wishes to remain leader of the Labour Party.

Carter may be a loose canon.

But in politics, where there is smoke there is usually fire.

- The Press

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