7 Dec 2009

Nationhood speech sparks concern within Labour Party

6:02 pm on 7 December 2009

Labour Party leader Phil Goff has been confronted with concerns from within the party about his speech accusing the National Government of re-opening racial wounds.

The speech was billed as one about "nationhood" and was delivered to gathering of Grey Power members almost two weeks ago.

Since then, concerns from party members have been discussed at a Labour Party council meeting and the issue is on the agenda for its caucus meeting at Parliament on Tuesday.

Mr Goff opened the speech by saying New Zealand was at a crossroads and that the Government faced choices that could turn one New Zealander against another, and Maori against Pakeha.

The Labour leader focused on the Emissions Trading Scheme and the foreshore and seabed, and talked of "shabby" and "short-term deals" between the Government and the Maori Party.

The speech was described by the Maori Party as racially divisive. Concerns were also raised by Labour members, with party president Andrew Little and were discussed at a Labour Party council meeting.

Mr Little on Monday stated his support for the stance taken by Mr Goff. He says he

had no concerns about the content of the speech, which he discussed with Mr Goff before it was delivered.

However, some party members raised concerns and these were addressed at the Labour council meeting, Mr Little says.

Mr Goff led the discussion at the council meeting and says party members who read all of his speech agreed with the content. "The concern was about how the speech had been interpreted by some aspects of the media - that's a concern that I share."

Mr Goff insists that it is wrong to say he played the race card. "People need to look at what is said and not their own particular interpretation. I've never played the race card, never will."

Mr Little says as Opposition leader, Mr Goff needs to be able to enter into controversial debates and comment on sensitive issues, including the Emissions Trading Scheme and the foreshore and seabed.

"I back Phil and what he said in his speech and I think, by and large, the party does. He is right to be into those debates and raising those issues and making speeches as he has done."

Mr Goff will discuss the speech at Labour's caucus meeting on Tuesday and is expected to face questions.

Labour MPs contacted by Radio New Zealand were quick to dismiss any suggestions of widespread concern within the caucus regarding Mr Goff's speech, or of dissatisfaction with his leadership.

However, Radio New Zealand political staff say this will have been a reminder of how sensitive the issue of race relations is, and how carefully the Labour Party needs to tread in an upcoming debate on the foreshore and seabed.