One of the most basic tenets of public relations and of politics is that the ultimate goal in handling any problem is to make it go away. Our training mantra – be straightforward, tell the truth, admit your mistakes – is undoubtedly the best way to achieve that result. But however you handle the problem, the silliest thing you can do is to prolong bad media coverage by giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying issue. That is precisely what Goff is doing by demanding that Carter front the media on the issue of his alleged abuse of his ministerial expenses, if and when he is allowed to return to parliament. The biggest news story in New Zealand at the moment is the good news story about the All Whites’ stunning performances in South Africa.
The country is in a feel-good mood and the ministerial expenses issue has faded in the print media and been largely absent from our television screens for a few days. Goff ought to be breathing a sigh of relief, more especially since his disciplining of Carter, which the pundits said would win him brownie points, has had no positive effect on his personal ratings as preferred Prime Minister. He is barely above the non-candidate Helen Clark. In summary, publicity around the Carter affair has damaged Labour, and Goff’s handling of the affair has not done him or the party any good. So, with the country obsessed with soccer and the Carter issue moribund, if not actually dead, the smart thing to do would have been to get back to business as usual. Goff, however, appears to want his pound of flesh. Why?
Essentially Goff says he is unsure that Carter’s unreserved written apology to the public, in which the former minister described himself as ‘embarrassed’ and ‘contrite’, was heartfelt or that ‘he understands why a genuine apology is needed’. ‘He needs,’ says Goff, ‘ to believe what he says. I don’t know that yet.’ So Goff has demanded an apology to the taxpayers from Carter, got that apology in the form of a full-blown maxima culpa, then decided that he isn’t happy with what’s going on in the deep recesses of Carter’s mind and demanded that he prostrate himself in sackcloth and ashes before a hostile media pack as a condition of returning to parliament. Leaving aside the fairness or unfairness of this latest demand, it is, in political and PR terms, sheer nuts. A dying issue has been brought back to life. And what precisely is the issue?
Well, according to Goff, it is more about Carter’s excessive travel bill while a Minister than it is about his use of his ministerial credit card on personal items. So Carter is being retrospectively punished not for the (repaid) $250 worth of personal items which he put on his ministerial credit card, but for travel which was approved and signed off by a Labour Cabinet, of which Goff himself was a member. It may well be that Carter doesn’t feel that he did anything heinous enough to deserve this level of censure or this degree of atonement. (Goff himself says that Phil Heatley’s charges to his ministerial credit card were much worse.) If that is what Carter feels then any further apology will be as meaningless as the first. How can you apologise if you don’t think you did anything wrong? And, technically at least, Carter did nothing that was wrong or against the rules.
Perhaps what Goff wants is the sort of pathetic display of remorse that we saw from Heatley or more recently from Len Brown – Carter weeping or slapping his chest and face. Aside from the political stupidity of dragging this whole unfortunate business out, it’s difficult to understand Goff’s motives in seeking to humiliate Carter in this way. The most generous interpretation is that he genuinely believes that the taxpaying public deserve a fuller apology from Carter. The less generous interpretation is that he hopes to put Carter in such an invidious position that he resigns from the party. Or alternatively that he hopes such strongarm tactics will bring him more brownie points from the pundits. So what is Carter to do? If I were advising him, I would suggest that he swallow his pride, do whatever will satisfy Goff’s apparent bloodlust, then keep his head down until after the 2011 election, when he will almost certainly be answerable to a different, and more reasonable leader of the Labour Party.