From bubble to bust in ninety days

Six months into the government’s term and things could hardly be more different from the rosy glow of the three-month mark. What has changed?

In March as the 100 days peg was passed the country was in a bubble. The summer had been kind, with jobs from Y2K and money in farmers’ pockets, and “we” held the America’s Cup. A new, confident, vigorous cabinet promised a fresh face after 15 years of economic reformation.

So it enjoyed stratospheric poll ratings and its leader likewise. Yet this leader had once rated 2 per cent. And what goes up usually comes down.

The mood bubble has now popped and the country has bumped back to earth. The America’s Cup stars are money-grubbing in other countries (yet are honoured at Queen’s Birthday here!). Economic growth is back to trend. The government is making mistakes in the remote fastness of the Beehive.

Life in the real world is dreary and frustrating. The government can no longer live on pre-election promises but what pays in the here and now. From here on it must constantly renew its mandate.

That means not doing things that threaten households’ financial security or challenge ordinary folks’ pleasures and not looking extreme or disunified or panicky. On every count recently this government has transgressed those simple rules.

But, just as the March bubble was not all – or even much – the government’s doing, the June grounding is not all – or even mostly – because of a couple of comments by Jim Anderton and mistakes in the drafting of the Employment Relations Bill.

Others have been keeping us company. Europe’s euro has fallen against the United States dollar, too. Australian confidence has dropped too. That it feels so bad here is partly because the summer bounce was so unreal.

Now people are paying off credit cards fattened in the bubble. Sobriety is back and with it hangover twangs. Of course, the government doesn’t look so good when the bills have to be paid, even if they are not all the government’s bills.

This has been compounded by foreign investors blackballing this country because they don’t like the colour of the government, a view embedded by some inaccurate foreign press commentary. And if foreign investors dump the dollar local business gets nervous because interest rates have to go up. Business then looks at the raft of policy initiatives and adds them up to a government much more left than it believes it was led to expect.

Business doesn’t have many votes. But it provides most jobs and if it gets noisy enough ordinary folk start to get edgy. Pop goes the bubble in the polls.

This has exposed an age-old Labour flaw. Most Labour party members and MPs think the economy is a machine and leave it in care of a few mechanics while they pour hearts and souls into equalising opportunity and outcomes through social policy (which includes labour relations law).

Helen Clark did not use her six years as leader of the Opposition to get tutored on the economy. She left that to Michael Cullen. There is attention to fiscal prudence and stimulating regional and “knowledge economy” business, as the Budget will show, but the real business for this government is health, education, welfare and “closing the gaps”.

There is another flaw. Most of the government’s initial activity has been in undoing the 1990s rather than building the 2000s. That is why it can be painted as very left when historically it isn’t.

For voters the here and now is not just the here and now. It includes concern about the future. Governments that succeed are those able to generate a sense of a better future. Backing out of a cul-de-sac, as this government says it is doing, is all very well. But it has not clearly mapped out its route into the future.

In six months a much moderated Employment Relations Bill will be passed (old hands Ken Douglas and Steve Marshall met the select committee yesterday to help clean it up), most of the policy markers will be firmly planted in the ground and Ms Clark’s innately careful style – which belies the radical image opponents and wishful leftists have endowed her coalition with – should be showing through.

Only then will we get a real measure of her government.