Six months in and the government has had its first public spats, its first political stumbles, its first management failures. The icing, though still very thick, is beginning to melt here and there. A suitable time for the first budget.
Growth has given the government a little more leeway but Michael Cullen is determined not to spend the “growth dividend” from good times and leave himself short in the next downturn. In any case, having missed the fine print in the pre-election fiscal update, he has a lower baseline than he campaigned on and so fewer funds for new social programmes. That sets up a difficult start to the next budget round starting in October.
But what sort of government is this, now we have had a good look at it?
First, it is more “left” than it projected before the election, especially in business’s estimation. This is only partly the result of Alliance influence – more the personal inclinations of Labour’s ministers.
But it is not to the left of the 1972-75 Kirk government, as the National party alleges. Norman Kirk would have thought this government Tory from his vantage point.
But Helen Clark and Jim Anderton have moved significantly to the left of the policy marker set by National – and that gap will widen over time compared with where a Shipley government would have been if it had continued on its track of asset sales, deregulation, tax cuts and diversification of social services delivery.
Second, this is a Maori-influenced government as none has been since 1840. This does not mean, as ACT has alleged, that the government harbours a secret plan for separate development. Helen Clark and Margaret Wilson (the “constitution minister”) have ruled out any move from one-person-one-vote and the rule of law. But it does mean the government is more sensitive to Maori aspirations and demands than its predecessor.
That flows from Labour’s renewed lease on the six Maori electorates, retention of which will require the delivery of something that meets Maori aspirations as defined by the six MPs and their list colleagues.
What that “something” needs to be is not yet clear, including to the government’s top brass. As Treaty Negotiations Minister, Wilson is feeling her way into a new protocol for grievance claims. But there is a strong view in the government that only by “closing the gaps” in social and economic performance will it head off the potential for serious political division.
Third, the government is green. Again, this is driven mostly from within the Labour party and only at the margins influenced by the Greens. When Clark overruled Cullen and Anderton over rimu logging on the West Coast in early May it was in response not to Greens’ protests but her own strong inclinations.
Fourth, the government is going local. Clark made good her promise to hold a summit with local government in her first 100 days and intends a partnership, implying much more for local government to do and with more power to do it.
Fifth, this is a more interventionist government, both to regulate business more – tightening competition law, regulating the sharemarket – and to assist business set up and export.
But, sixth, it is an open-economy government. It has frozen tariffs, will re-impose parallel importing restrictions and talks of “fair” as well as “free” trade. But these are all peripheral.
Seventh, it is resurrecting social democratic notions of centralised, state-guaranteed social justice. Hence the Employment Relations Bill, ACC re-nationalisation, re-centralisation of education and other social services and softening of rules on benefits – and the tax rise.
Eighth, it is a peace government, turning the armed forces into an instrument of humanitarianism.
Ninth, it is Clark’s government. Not since Sir Robert Muldoon has a Prime Minister so bestrode the cabinet.
She is a tough taskmistress, uninterested in disguising her feelings when she thinks ministers haven’t measured up, as Steve Maharey and Marian Hobbs have found from reading the newspapers. She intervenes freely in portfolios, sometimes counterproductively and confusingly for the minister concerned. “Hubris” and “control freak” are muttered in the corridors.
But she is also clear thinking, in command of detail and well briefed. She combines brains and brawn. If she pulls off her ambition to stimulate a stronger sense of “nationhood” (still only a murky concept) she could be there a long while.
And, tenth, it has been a lucky government, inheriting good economic conditions likely to keep voters benign – at least while they last.