Politician of the Year

All new governments look pleased with themselves. This one, reciting a liturgy of fairness, frugality and (intra-coalition) fraternity, is almost incandescent.

It will even relish today’s debate on the tax rise because it is sure it has the moral high ground. As one former minister said this week, there is little point attacking it for the next few months because hardly anyone will hear.

Helen Clark has looked very much the Prime Minister she has studied hard and long to be. The public has even been allowed to see the warm, funny Helen hitherto cloistered in the drawing room. Jim Anderton has so far been a model of cooperation and joviality.

The cabinet has been constructed from the best people realistically available, portfolio loads apportioned pretty much on merit, with cunning checks and balances. Note the balancing act on the minimum wage: youth rates stay for now but the adult rate is higher than the Alliance demanded.

Generally, the cabinet has been measured but swift, firm but (mostly) forbearing. There is not the grand sentimentalism of Norman Kirk’s incoming government in 1972 nor the breakneck breaking of promises amid crises real and imagined of David Lange’s in 1984.

Ms Clark’s looks like a government that wants to stay in business a long while. The odds are against that, as will become apparent when the glow fades, but the start it has made and the evident widespread initial public goodwill give it at least a fighting chance.

It helps to have come in on a landslide. On the most stringent measurement the swing is bigger than in 1972 and 1984 and on the most generous more than twice those landslides. That has assured a mandate.

But there are nagging niggles. Labour’s sub-40 per cent vote share is a fragile platform for re-election. Its MPs hogged votes for huge electorate majorities instead of selflessly building the party vote for a coalition majority. Harry Duynhoven’s electorate vote share was 26.5 per cent bigger than his party vote share, Steve Maharey’s 23.8 per cent, Annette King’s 18.9 per cent.

It didn’t help either that much advertising was curiously misdirected and that Helen Clark’s positive pitch came perilously late.

Offsetting that, however, was campaign manager Mike Williams. An innovative party pro in the 1980s who then made his fortune in market research and is retired at 50, he was exactly the energising, motivating, mischievous, wheedling, number-crunching, fun-loving, furiously hard-working, fearless – and trusted – figure needed to complement the tightly corseted Clark cabal at the campaign command centre.

Labour outgunned National on the ground. In part this was due to liberal donations of organisers by the Engineers Union, which was denied its payoff when its candidate, Lynne Pillay, just missed out – and which, payoff still unpaid, has a vested interest in aircraft maintenance jobs, at risk if the F-16 deal is cancelled. But the energy on the ground was also to a great extent due to Mr Williams, now surely due the presidency.

On-the-ground activity wins votes. For all that these days the media (to use the jargon) “mediate” elections, footsoldiers make a difference. One British academic analysis reckons Tony Blair’s majority would be 33, not 177, if his landslide election had been conducted only via the media.

Of course, it is easier to play with the wind than against it. Jenny Shipley had in 1997 been handed the thankless task of rescuing a party that had already in effect been beaten twice and then kept on life support by Winston Peters – a hospital pass such as was given Sue Wood, made president as Sir Robert Muldoon was entering his goetterdaemerung years.

Mrs Shipley won deserved praise for her combative electioneering. But that does not obliterate her political misjudgments – in veering right in 1998 when the electorate was chorusing its wish for a new centre, in pinching pennies off pensioners and calling it “progress”, in time after time mismanaging micro-scandals into crises and, during the campaign, in puffing up the Greens.

Apart from prompting thousands of young people to enrol who had not been intending to vote but then saw some point when Nandor was thrust on screen, that episode (Labour’s focus groups said) brought back into view the hitherto airbrushed mistake-prone Jenny and sealed her fate.

Ms Clark is not only brainier than Mrs Shipley. She has a lot more political nous. Which is why she is indisputably politician of the year.