Moving from ‘contract’ to ‘relationship’

What is the most important thing a government must do in its first 100 days? Change the tone.

Helen Clark and Jim Anderton beamed self-congratulations at journalists and colleagues yesterday over coffee and biscuits. That in itself is a change of tone. Can you imagine Jim Bolger and Winston Peters doing an arm-in-arm act three years ago?

Around that time the big news was Tukoroirangi Morgan’s underpants. Much of the news in the Clark-Anderton first 100 days (which are up on Sunday) has been exactly the opposite: a holy tirade against big salaries, golden handshakes and extravagances. Ministers are riding economy on planes.

Good show, ACT’s perk-busting Rodney Hide would say. But this weekend he and the rest of ACT will be huddled in their conference trying to decide whether to push for a wider vote with more of Mr Hide’s populism or to return to Sir Roger Douglas’s deregulatory principles to recover lost corporate funding and build an enduring electoral niche.

The point for both Mr Hide and Ms Clark is that austerity has a limited reach. It strokes popular grumpiness but it does not build a new Jerusalem.

For that project a politician needs imagination, an expansive personality and a mission. How does the government stack up?

By imagination I don’t mean private fantasising but the creation of new public images. In this category fits Ms Clark’s “nation-building”.

She came a bit slowly to this possibility from a decision to take the arts and culture portfolio and it is not clear she has sussed yet how to do it. Associate arts minister Judith Tizard’s “heart of the nation” exercise, led by Hamish Keith, has yet to start beating.

Nation-building, as Ms Clark has understood well, includes notions of national identity and expression through arts, culture and heritage. This is part of the rationale for her quaint 1960s idea of forcing more home-grown and highbrow items on to state television.

But, much more than that, nation-building is the creation or strengthening of what binds the peoples of a nation together, makes them pleased to be members of the nation and provides symbols to encapsulate nationhood. Sport is part of that here.

It is the people who build a nation and give currency to the symbols. The politician’s role is catch the mood and aspirations of ordinary folk and take them to a higher plane. A nation-building politician must be larger than life, a Garibaldi or a Gandhi.

Ms Clark, with her newly confident jokiness and even folksiness, coupled with her command of the cabinet, has shown flashes of promise of such a larger-than-life expansiveness.

But her passion for austerity works against expansiveness. So, too, would any succumbing, of which we have seen tiny slivers, to a temptation to divide people into us-and-them.

Of course, there are irritating, vexatious and unprincipled opponents. The nation-building politician’s art is to rise above them.

One who appears capable of that is Margaret Wilson, whose unrattled, direct, information-dense public relations has distinguished her in the first 100 days, even though a newcomer. In preparing her Employment Relations Bill she put aside employers’ crude attacks at election time and since and included them in consultations.

More important as a measure of this government, in her bill is embedded the most important tonal element of the first 100 days, what might be called its prime mission.

That is to replace “contract” with “relationship”.

Contracts rule workplaces, the public service and the dealings of the government with voluntary agencies. This move during the 1990s, this government thinks, was a profound shift in the way we do business. It has set people in opposition to each other, diminished trust, limited the scope for innovation in social services, lost economic chances.

The new talk is of partnerships with business, local government and anyone else it can lay its hands on, outcome-based funding for social agencies, mediation and cooperation in the workplace, working with people instead of pushing them around – all to rebuild trust and civil society.

Sounds nice. Will it happen? We don’t need to answer that yet. The first 100 days are about intentions, not outcomes.