You Bet He's Smiling! Phil Goff has somehow managed to convince Andrew Little that it's okay to have a senior Caucus member telling the world that the Labour Party's policy on the TPPA is wrong, and that the National Government's stance is correct. As they say: "With friends like these ..." And it's not even as if Phil has a proud history of approving dispensations for others - just ask Jim Anderton! For some reason, when it comes to Caucus collective responsibility, no exemptions are ever made for the Left.
PHIL GOFF IS A LUCKY MAN. Had Andrew Little extended to him the same measure of tolerance that he extended to Jim Anderton, 28 years ago, he’d no longer be a member of Labour’s caucus.
Goff was among those Rogernomes who, on 4 August 1988, passed the following resolution:
“This Caucus declares that the following understanding governs the relationship of Caucus members with each other: Members shall vote in Parliament in accordance with decisions of the Caucus. Where a member deliberately abstains from voting, or votes against a Government measure in the House which has been passed by Caucus, such action automatically removes the member from membership of the Caucus unless express permission to take that action has been given by Caucus.”
Referred to at the time as the “loaded gun” resolution, it was intended to block any member (but most particularly, Anderton) from either voting against, or abstaining from voting for, legislation setting in motion the privatisation of state assets. Anderton’s colleagues were well aware that the Labour Party’s official stance was one of opposition to privatisation, and that, strictly speaking they were all bound – as Labour MPs – to uphold Labour Party policy. They simply didn’t care.
By December of 1988, the circumstances anticipated in the Loaded Gun Resolution had come to pass. A bill enabling the government to partially privatise the BNZ was on the floor of the House. In spite of the Labour Party’s New Zealand Council informing the Caucus that privatisation would directly contravene the party’s 1987 manifesto, and contradict the expressed will of the Labour Party Conference, the David Lange-led Labour Government pressed ahead with the legislation.
On Saturday, 10 December 1988, Jim Anderton told a hushed House of Representatives:
“I cannot give my support to this enabling legislation. If we are not going to sell the Bank of New Zealand, we do not need this legislation. If we are going to sell it, then I am opposed to it and must show my opposition here, at this time, because there will be no other parliamentary opportunity to protest at or prevent the Government having the power to sell the Bank. As I said at the Committee Stages, I will not vote with the Opposition National Party. Their anxiety to sell the Bank of New Zealand and other state assets is well known. I will, therefore, record my opposition by formally abstaining when the vote is taken on this Third Reading.”
On Tuesday, 13 December 1988, the Senior Government Whip, Margaret Austin, wrote to Anderton informing him that he would receive no further Caucus communications and was stripped of his membership of Caucus committees. The Whip had been withdrawn; Jim Anderton was out of the Labour Caucus.
Not for Anderton the dispensation granted to Goff by his Caucus colleagues. Regardless of the fact that he was attempting, in good conscience, to uphold Labour Party policy (as required of him, and all of his colleagues, by the Labour Party constitution) permission for Anderton to abstain on the enabling legislation was denied.
Twenty-eight years later, the same Phil Goff who had voted to expel anyone who defied the will of Caucus has not only been extended the privilege of abstaining from voting against the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s enabling legislation, but also of actually crossing the floor of the House of Representatives and voting in favour of it.
The relevant Labour Party media release of 28 January 2016 sates: “Opposition Leader Andrew Little has given dispensation to MP Phil Goff to take his own position on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement due to his historic involvement in negotiating its predecessor, the P4.” According to Little: “Phil has had a longstanding involvement and public commitment to this agreement which differs with the Labour Caucus’ decision that it cannot support the deal in its current form due to its compromise of New Zealand’s sovereignty.”
But the 2005 P4 free-trade initiative, which the Helen Clark-led Labour Government had set in motion, and which Goff played a key role in negotiating, is in no way comparable to the TPPA. The P4 was a modest and mutually beneficial free trade agreement involving New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Chile. The TPPA, in sharp contrast, is a freedom charter for US transnational corporations. Granting Goff a dispensation on the grounds that he had a hand in negotiating P4 is, therefore, a political non-sequitur.
Moreover, in dissenting from his Caucus colleagues’ view that support for the TPPA compromises New Zealand’s sovereignty, Goff is actually asserting that what Labour is presenting to the electorate as the truth is, in fact, a lie. Which means that Little has given Goff a dispensation to declare that up is down, black is white, and the TPPA is a good thing. And why would a party leader anxious to enhance his own, and his party’s, credibility do that!
What’s more, the irrelevance of the P4 argument makes Little’s treatment of David Shearer’s dissidence utterly inconsistent and unfair. If Goff is entitled to deny the truth of Labour’s position, then why isn’t Shearer also being granted a pass from the reality-based community? Or, for that matter, any other Caucus member not yet convinced that the TPPA represents a dangerous corporate assault on what’s left of New Zealand’s democracy and independence.
What Little and his colleagues all need to find – and quickly – is a measure of the clarity and courage demonstrated by Jim Anderton on 10 December 1988. If the TPPA is a bad thing, then allowing a Labour MP to vote in favour of it cannot be ethically, or politically, justified. It follows, therefore, that those Labour parliamentarians who do not believe the TPPA is a bad thing; and who are unwilling to abide by the contrary judgement of their colleagues; have only one morally consistent course of action to take. They must resign, forthwith, from both the Labour Caucus and the Labour Party.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 January 2016.