What happens when the mandate runs out

Helen Clark and Phil Goff are harmony in action on foreign policy: the brainy daughter of conservative small farmers and the brainy working-class kid who left home young both learnt their political analysis at Auckland University in the 1970s.

In the 1980s they were factionally separated, he as the protege of the Douglas-Prebble-Bassett team, she in a rearguard action against it. That, plus a modish conservatism on law and order after 1993, have given Mr Goff a right-wing reputation.

Mr Goff has chafed at this reputation, claiming genuine Labour credentials. In fact, Ms Clark backed Mr Goff’s law and order line for its electoral value. And on foreign policy they are eye to eye. At Monday’s press conference on Fiji there was an ease between them not always evident with other ministers.

That has been evident at other times, over East Timor, over defence, in their attacks on Japan over whaling. They are both moralisers in foreign policy (except, as Peter Dunne has demonstrated, on Taiwan, where pragmatic defence to China prevails).

On Monday Mr Goff took that moralising a mite further, admonishing the media not to interview Mr Speight. That followed his attack last week on a Paul Holmes interview for letting the hoodlum be seen in a nicely pressed shirt and with a nice smile.

The media’s job is to put all sides of a story, however unpalatable. Mr Goff wanted only his side, the side of righteousness (as National did over reports from Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991). The extreme version of his admonition is Speight’s thugs’ trashing of Fiji television on Sunday night for slights on their hero.

Of course, Mr Goff is not in that category. He is in fact one of the most approachable and affable of Labour’s generally approachable and affable senior echelon.

But inside his righteous media message is a pointer to the government’s present pickle. That is wrapped up in “mandate”, the ubiquitous justification for fast action on all manner of things. “We are right,” Labour and the Alliance imperiously say, “because the voters told us so.”

But “mandate” can be like a greased pig – very hard to ride.

First, note that only 52 per cent voted for Labour-supporting parties and that that mandate stretched neither to the cigarette tax rise nor to the excess above $25 million Ms Clark is spending on the arts.

Then note the Employment Relations Bill (ERB).

A more conciliatory Employers Federation last week began to concede publicly – and realistically – that the bill’s principles were mandated. Some labour law reform was part of the general social and economic policy “correction” unquestionably mandated by the electorate. Even senior National MPs say they would have been hard pressed to oppose a mild labour reform bill.

But there was no mandate for the contradictory clauses on dependent contractors, nor for business plans to be available for union perusal, nor for the extremities in the directors’ liability and non-dismissal provisions. As I wrote elsewhere when the ERB was introduced, it needs extensive redrafting to do what the government intends without causing unintended damage. It was drafted too hastily to meet an unrealistic deadline.

The ERB’s unmandated detail provided many hooks for opponents to hang a scarifying campaign. As a result, the government must do its redrafting in the full glare of adverse publicity and the appearance of backdown.

At a stroke the sure-footedness which was an important ingredient in the government’s ecstatic poll ratings in its early days is in question. And this is not an isolated misfire: a bill closing superannuation loopholes in the fast-passed tax rise also needs heavy redrafting to be workable.

Mandate lasts only as long as voters’ second thoughts. The government’s handling of the ERB has furnished a cause for second thoughts. A cabinet with a more humility than Mr Goff showed the media on Monday would now begin to assess how much longer it can rest its case on mandate alone.