A test for the PM’s management mettle

What is it about a government that really affects the lives and livelihoods of ordinary folk? Its policy.

Will the Dover Samuels affair change government policy? No. Will it change the government’s ability to carry out its policy? No.

So what’s the fuss?

Superficially, it’s entertainment. The drama of charge and defence of a public figure puts politics up with sport and disaster.

Christine Rankin’s personality and combativeness make news. So she got top billing in most media reports of Steve Maharey’s response to the Hunn report on WINZ last week, even though it is the new policy of regionalisation and devolution that will have actual impact on beneficiaries’ lives.

The more serious fuss in the Samuels affair is confidence. Politicians are ordinary folks’ proxies in policymaking. Questionable behaviour damages ordinary folks’ confidence they will make the “right” policy decisions.

Criminal behaviour does that for sure, shifty cover-ups and discovered lies almost certainly and at times so do prevarication, some aspects of moral behaviour and simple inadequacy.

The consequences do not stop at the individual but can flow on to confidence in the whole government. How Helen Clark handles the Samuels affair is a test of her prime ministership.

In a cabinet the inadequate must be hidden or swaddled, the mildly immoral quarantined or laughed off as “colourful”, the criminal, the mendacious and the grossly immoral cauterised.

And this must be done swiftly, decisively and with an unequivocal public message. A Prime Minister failing those imperatives can compound the damage, as did Jenny Shipley’s chronic equivocations last year.

Ms Clark broke the rule in January when she did not dispose swiftly of the allegations against Mr Samuels. She advances plausible reasons. But reasons are cheap. Leaving oneself hostage to potential scandalmongering, as she did, can be expensive.

Now she is left with a limp public message: the imminence of exposure forced her to get a police verdict. And this was on a matter on which, if the personalities and circumstantial factors are abstracted, feminists such as Ms Clark and Margaret Wilson would instinctively side with the teenager.

She has also shifted ground. On Wednesday she hung tough with declarations Mr Samuels would be back in his job if cleared. On Friday she equivocated: “Mud sticks.” On Monday-Tuesday, citing consultation with Maori, she set the test at whether he can be “effective”. Mr Samuels is learning that he, like all individuals in politics, is expendable.

Ms Clark has long been lukewarm about him. She wants Parekura Horomia as Maori Affairs Minister and, despite doubts in some quarters, would surely get him voted into the cabinet if she pressed.

This would be more than an exchange of personnel. Mr Horomia is of a new generation of Maori leaders, better educated, sharper-focused and harder-nosed than Mr Samuels’ generation. He is well-connected tribally, street-smart and knowledgeable about the bureaucracy where he was in a relatively senior position (and fell out with Ms Rankin). He caught Ms Clark’s eye and admiration in the lead-up to candidate selections two years ago.

All’s well that ends well? Not exactly.

Until now Ms Clark’s firm management, though at times a little overbearing, has been a great political strength and a big plus for public confidence in the government. Now, though the Samuels affair will soon fade out, Richard Prebble has opened a small chink in the armour.

But this is at a cost to ACT, too. Mr Prebble plausibly denies scandalmongering and sympathisers say he was motivated by concern for parliamentary standards. But my information is that Ms Clark is right to have assumed ACT would have gone public if she had not.

ACT began as a party of policy principle and is wracked by unease at Mr Prebble’s penchant for populist adventures, which may do a lot for entertainment and even dent confidence in the government but which leave unscathed the all-important policy line. Is that ACT’s point?