Closing the gaps in the policy line

I remember as a fledgling parliamentary journalist marvelling at Pierre Trudeau’s way of answering questions. This was the Holyoake era and intellect was an infrequent visitor to politics.

Mr Trudeau seemed to reach deep into a cultural and intellectual reservoir to begin each answer. He was deeply thoughtful and subtly informative. He was, to boot, suave and handsome, even dashing.

He was the Liberal’s liberal, progressive on matters of nationhood and Quebecois rights (the indigenous rights crusade was barely nascent in those days). He was rightly described on his death last week as a “giant”.

There is a touch of the Trudeau about Helen Clark. While she lacks Mr Trudeau’s magnetism, she is learning a workable folksiness. She is more liberal (in the North American sense of that word) than socialist or even social democrat. She is formidably brainy and often starts an answer to the media by going behind the question as one might in a policy seminar (which occasionally leads to media misconstructions).

And, Trudeau-like, she has a passion for nationhood and has set correcting ethnic imbalances at the centre of her programme.

She has done this last even though it threatens her ambition for three terms to embed Labour as a “normal” party of government.

She told the Herald two weeks ago that major progress on “closing the gaps” between Maori and Pacific islanders and the rest would take 12 to 18 years. That’s four to six parliamentary terms. Not since Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson has a driving-force politician taken such a long view.

Most politicians can think only as far as the next election. Simon Upton is an exception which has made him a soulmate of sorts to Ms Clark and he, regrettably, is going off to put his large intellect and strategic thinking at others’ disposal in Paris.

The long view did for Sir Roger and Ms Richardson in the end. Ms Clark understands the risk: she told the Herald some said she should never have started on the “gaps” programme because opponents would “pick us off and make us look silly” – but “I say if you never start you never get there”.

Of course. And she gets high marks for nobility of purpose.

But her government needs singularity of purpose, too.

“Closing the gaps” has taken on a life of its own beyond a reasonable reading of Labour’s pre-election policy.

First, it appears we must read article three, which guarantees to Maori equal citizenship, as requiring equal outcomes, not just equal access to opportunity. This is the nub of the argument between Labour and National.

Second, for many Maori, including Tariana Turia, “closing the gaps” is also about closing a power, or “sovereignty”, gap. The government’s rightwing critics strike a chord with many ordinary folk – and, ominously, among many hitherto supportive white liberals — when they call this “separatism”.

The parties of the right (including New Zealand First) draw a line between Maori organisations delivering some social services programmes – because they can achieve better results than one-size-fits-all state agencies – and demands by growing numbers of Maori for control over policy content as well, with self-defined goals and aspirations and accountability mechanisms.

Ms Clark herself seemed close to endorsing this when she told the Maori Women’s Welfare League that reducing disparities was not about Maori adopting the aspirations of non-Maori. “It is not, heaven forbid, about government and pakeha patronising Maori.”

Ms Clark actually does not endorse “sovereignty” aims. She sees her programme as improving socioeconomic achievement, not setting up parallel power structures.

But the hares are now running wild. Down in officialdom some dedicated gap-closers are telling non-Maori providers of social assistance to Maori they must involve more Maori in their governance or face funding cuts, no matter how effective their programmes.

Social Services Minister Steve Maharey says if that is happening the officials are misinterpreting their brief, which is to “encourage” Maori involvement, with no funding “ring-fencing”.

But the misinterpretation points out what the government has at last begun to recognise and act upon: that it needs to be very precise what the brief is.