Clark a victim of her own competence?

Helen Clark has been the dominant political figure of her time and one of the great political managers in New Zealand history. But she couldn't find the support for a fourth term.

Last updated 02:08 09/11/2008
Fairfax
The great manager had her blind spots.

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Helen Clark's strength was always her strength. She inherited a party sundered with hatred and bitterness: a civil war that began with the right-wing Rogernomics revolution of the Lange government in 1984 and was still going in opposition in 1993. In her early years as Labour leader she was unpopular and narrowly survived a coup.

In 2008 she headed a governing party that was as tight as it had ever been, despite nine years in power and mounting trouble in the polls. Caucuses that have spent three terms on the Treasury benches are usually fractious and divided. Not hers.

She showed the same strength in managing her coalition partners under MMP. "I sometimes wonder whether I'm the victim of my own success as a popular and competent prime minister," she said in 2003.

She drew scorn from all quarters for this boast, but there was truth in it. Even in 2008 her personal approval ratings remained astonishingly high. She was popular for a long time. And she was always competent.

"I think in many ways I'm quite a conservative person," she told the Sunday Star-Times two weeks ago. By that she meant that having inherited the MMP system, she was determined to make it work even though she had opposed the move away from first past the post.

But she was conservative in other ways too. She was brought up in a National-voting Waikato dairy farming family. She seems to have been a shy and rather solitary girl, but underneath it she had the self-confidence and self-reliance bred by rural conservatives. She hated the stuffy girls' school she went to, and as a university student she was a Vietnam protester and general-order leftist. But at the core she was never really radical. She was a classic social democrat, that distinctive mixture of conservatism and moderate reformism.

In 1988 Labour prime minister David Lange joked that Clark "was so dry she was combustible" a wounding remark about a supposed enemy of Rogernomics. But Lange's quip wasn't quite right either.

When Clark got into government in 1999 she did not reverse the central reforms of the Lange government: an independent Reserve Bank with a single brief, to fight inflation; the state-owned enterprise system, and financial deregulation. She did not even reverse National Party finance minister Ruth Richardson's benefit cuts. But she did stop state asset sales dead, and spent billions reversing the cuts in social services.

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And her conservative managerialism had another dimension: she was a serious strategist who would not join battles she considered unwinnable or support individuals who seemed to spell trouble. Asked why she had not given more support to the chief critic of Rogernomics in the Lange Labour caucus, she reportedly said: "I'm not going to go down in a hail of bullets for Jim Anderton."

This same pragmatism or ruthlessness was a hallmark of her rule. She cut loose cabinet minister Dover Samuels when embarrassing accusations surfaced about his personal life. She sacked cabinet minister Ruth Dyson following a drink-driving conviction, and Lianne Dalziel for lying. Eventually, though, all three were allowed back.

There were causes she believed in but refused to promote, even when she had the prime minister's bully pulpit. In 1999 she revealed she was a republican, and termed the monarchy "absurd". "I mean, we're 12,000 miles away from where the head of state resides. How does any of that make sense?" But she would not promote the republican cause because it was too divisive and many people considered it irrelevant.In other words, it was a lost cause.

Clark famously proved herself a great mistress of MMP. Again, she was interested in what would work, not what she thought about her coalition partners. She and all of Labour were infuriated when Winston Peters chose to go with National in 1996. This did not stop her choosing him as a partner in 2005 and giving him the plum foreign affairs post.

In this she was as pragmatic as National leader Jim Bolger, who sacked Peters from cabinet when he was a Nat and then went into partnership with him when he resurfaced as new Zealand First Party leader a few years later.

There was in fact a real empathy between these two rural pragmatists. Clark inherited Bolger as ambassador to the United States and kept him on. Later, she gave him a variety of top jobs.

She froze out the Greens in 2005. In 2008 she was happy to forge a new relationship with them. Whatever works within bounds.

Her dislike of the economic far right is genuine and personal. Both in 2008 and 2005 she said one of her main purposes was to prevent the re-emergence of the neo-cons. Roger Douglas and Rodney Hide are not conservatives: they are radicals.

In some ways Clark resembles another long-ruling conservative, National's Keith Holyoake. Holyoake was a great consensus prime minister, who was careful never to let his government stray too far ahead of public opinion. In some ways Clark was the same.

When business attacked her government in the winter of discontent, she went to great trouble to reassure it that her government was mainstream and orthodox, not frightening and radical.

When her pro-Maori Closing the Gaps campaign caused a backlash, she disowned it. And her hard-line response to Maori anger over the foreshore and seabed was purely political. If she had not done so, she indicated, the white folks would have taken to the streets instead of the Maori. And who has the most votes?

The great manager had her blind spots, inevitably, and they caused great harm to her government.

She underestimated the fury that the anti-smacking law would cause. She could not see that a trivial issue like the banning of old incandescent light-bulbs would crystallize popular resentment at the government's overbearing ways. In this the policy wonk seems to have blinded the pragmatist.

For her strength, of course, was also always her weakness. The dominant figure of the age offered strong leadership and for a long time it was respected though not loved. But people tire of all leaders, and they tire strongly of strong leaders.

Even after nine years there remained a good deal of respect for the Labour prime minister. But strength and managerialism cannot always prevail.

- Sunday Star Times

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