A Prime Minister growing on the job

“She’s learning on the job,” says a Helen Clark insider. And she is. Just as she developed greatly in opposition, she is continuing to grow as Prime Minister.

In a sense that is unremarkable, since there is no complete apprenticeship for the job. High-quality stewardship of line portfolios did not give Jenny Shipley the required general management skills. Nor does a period of understudy as leader of the Opposition, though it helps.

But Clark’s apprenticeship was broad: wide experience in her party and in Parliament, three years a minister, including the big health and labour portfolios, 15 months Deputy Prime Minister in 1989-90 and six years leading the Opposition.

Nevertheless, when she stepped up to the pinnacle a year ago, there were several missing dimensions:

She had not got tuition in economics, leaving that to Michael Cullen. Economics is central to politics and not the sideline technicality social democrats often assume.
Partly as a result of that, she had underestimated the importance of business confidence in the modern economy and so had not developed broad and deep enough connections with businesspeople. When they turned sour in April-May her government was rocked because the sourness contaminated non-business sentiment.
In policy she had focused heavily on reconstruction of the 1980s welfare state – correcting the “excesses” of market-led liberalism – at the expense of assessing the deeply changed economy and society she was to manage in the 2000s. Consequently, she presented only a partial and to a large extent backward-looking “vision” before the election.
She had not got fully to grips with evolving Maori ambitions and thinking, as represented by the new generation of Maori MPs she was bringing into Parliament. So in September she had hastily to recast her flagship “closing the gaps” programme to retrieve it from the “separatist” imagery that had developed out of the new generation’s push for self-determination and power-sharing.
She had held policy development and electoral strategy tightly to a tiny inner group. This was her management style as a 1980s minister and she replicated it as Prime Minister – channelling much action through her longtime chief of staff, Heather Simpson, who became a sort of “grand vizier”. The “brains trust” advisory group in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) has had far less regular access to her than under previous Prime Ministers.
Clark had also not kept abreast of changes in public sector management in the 1990s. So the adjustment difficulties between senior public servants and ministers that often accompany changes in government lingered too long.
So Clark had no alternative to growing in office. Actually, that’s not strictly true: the alternative is a single term in office. But Clark wants three terms, to embed the Labour party and Labour language as the normal party and language of government, as National did in the 1950s.

The good news for Labour and the left is that she has grown in office – and impressively.

She is getting a grasp of economics beyond the simple balance-the-budget imperative to which she has long subscribed. She is developing productive links into business.

She showed at Paul Swain’s e-commerce summit in November she has acquired a good feel for the threats, challenges and opportunities of the “new economy” and the role the government might play in seizing the opportunities. Her summit speech was visionary in a forward-looking way she did not achieve in opposition.

In September-October she began to pull back a little from her precipitate inclination to override and at times undermine ministers. There were also attempts to coordinate ministers’ public utterances after a string of scrapes due to a lack of professional discipline and strategy in internal and external communications. (When I said this in the New Zealand Herald in September she hotly denounced me via columns by veteran journalist Ian Templeton who has a weekly audience with her.)

And she has had former State Services Commissioner Don Hunn reviewing DPMC’s structure and operations. Whether Hunn’s report, due this month, will make a difference, however, will depend on whether he has overcome his early difficulty in divining Clark’s needs and on how much she is prepared to let flow round the Simpson bottleneck.

Has she grown enough? Probably not yet. She has yet to get the knack of taking the people into her confidence and getting their confidence back in return. That was her hero Queen Elizabeth I’s consummate talent. Clark has maybe 12 months left to master it.