Two months in and the government’s honeymoon is still in full glow, the rosiest for decades. Why?
One reason is that the change of government was not just a switch of parties after nine years of National. It was also a switch of policy tone after 15 years of free-market governments. That has intensified voters’ sense of change.
A second reason is that this government’s entry into office has been the most sure-footed for 30 years. Helen Clark looks every millimetre the Prime Minister she served a long and assiduous apprenticeship to become. It helps there is not a fiscal crisis, as in 1984 and 1990, but she was clear about what she would do in her first months and has gone about it swiftly.
A third reason is that Ms Clark is making a virtue of WYSIWYG government. “What you see is what you get,” she is fond of saying, meaning, what you saw before the election you are now getting. Thus the anti-defection promise, which got most applause at campaign meetings, must be enacted. So, too, with tax, ACC, labour laws, F16s.
After two governments which said one thing before the elections that brought them to power and did otherwise in office and after Winston Peters’ backflip in 1996, WYSIWYG is a tonic for voters’ ailing faith in the system — almost regardless (for now anyway) of what is being done.
National has not yet grasped this. Two weeks ago Jenny Shipley seemed to have got the point, insisting in typically hyperventilating language that her MPs should “suck it in” now and only later in the year “ignite the policy fireworks”. But then last week in Parliament she let out her breath and moved a vote of no confidence.
Such a motion could be credible so soon after the election only if the government were proving incompetent in carrying out, or were departing from, its stated intentions. Since neither is the case, Mrs Shipley’s manoeuvre can be interpreted only as telling voters they got it wrong in November.
Next February, when results are replacing promise, forgetful voters might be more open to such suggestions. But to do it now, when not only voters but even hardened observers enveloped in the festive mood are forecasting at least one more term for a left government, is arrogantly awry.
There are some grounds for predictions of another term, not least among them this deficient sense of strategy of Mrs Shipley’s and, conversely, Ms Clark’s multifaceted grasp of what she has to do to keep winning.
Nevertheless, when the marriage with the electorate settles down to routine and the bills have to be paid, Ms Clark will face a number of challenges in her quest for a long relationship.
One is management style. Ms Clark is cautious and controlling. She has put herself on all 13 cabinet committees and chairs five. She is prone to weigh in heavily on relatively minor issues. Modern government is too complex, even in our small country, for the hands-on command she favoured as opposition leader.
A second challenge is management of the subterranean divergences between Labour and the Alliance, between the Alliance factions and between the Alliance and the upstart Greens.
A third is that Ms Clark is hostage to high expectations implied from her criticisms of social services in opposition.
She is trying to dampen expectations with a “culture of modesty” and finesse them with “nation-building”. Moreover, if the economy goes to plan, with above-trend growth this year and next and so rising employment and real incomes, social policy expectations should not be a problem. But what if the world economy doesn’t pick up as projected? Or if foreign and local investors turn sour on the economic policy shift and growth tails off in election year 2002?
A fourth challenge is that WYSIWYG presumes people did actually register what was promised and did actually vote for that. A “mandate” is a shadowy animal. It is not yet clear exactly what Ms Clark’s mandate is.
And, fifth, she has very little electoral leeway. Labour’s 38 per cent vote was low and soft: 10 per cent were newly acquired or reconverted and so are still courting rather than firmly wed.
None of this says Labour won’t get a second term. But a honeymoon is no predictor of a golden marriage.