Party over, it's time for management

A large part of politics is management. Last week’s defeats on the new health bill exposed a failure of government management.

The ingredients were a too tight timeframe, inadequate select committee chairing within that timeframe, inattention by Labour to its partners and unseemly tantrums by the Leader of the House, Michael Cullen.

There was to boot a wildcard, the Greens. Greens have an irritating habit of evoking principle – even at times in other countries (though extremely unlikely here in this term) bringing down a relatively friendly government.

The public will scarcely have registered last week’s stuff-up. But the potential for more abounds, notably, for example, in the tight timeframe for the Superannuation Bill, about which the Greens also have serious misgivings.

The stock defence is that the people voted for the programme so Parliament should knuckle under. But actually only 46 per cent voted for the government and in any case we are now out of the “mandate” season. Yesterday Helen Clark and Jim Anderton celebrated (nearly) a year in office.

So health bill select committee chair Judy Keall’s self-justification – “In the final count the government majority [on the select committee] carries the day” – no longer washes.

Actually, if the opportunity to iron out differences in the select committee is passed up, in the final count the government doesn’t carry the day. All of Dr Cullen’s super-abundant cleverness and parliamentary skill – which enable him usually to unpick opposition stratagems — and all of his resentful arrogance – “We won. You lost. Eat that” – can’t conjure a majority out of truculence.

Constructing and maintaining a majority requires patience and goodwill. And this Ms Clark last week had to supply herself – just as she has assumed primacy for relationships with business which Dr Cullen fluffed. She had cause to rue backing down on her wish to give the House leadership to the equable, prosaic and reliable Mark Burton.

Which only adds to her central management flaw: that her government revolves very tightly around her (and her remarkable chief of staff, Heather Simpson). Hers is the closest to one-person rule since Sir Robert Muldoon’s failure at it two decades ago.

And even Sir Robert accepted more dissent from senior public servants than Ms Clark. Certainly, he tolerated vastly more incompetence among ministers. The unsentimental Ms Clark has made a trademark of whacking ministers who fail her. And, to her occasional cost, she has yet to match the professionalism of Sir Robert’s communications.

Centralised rule requires a strong central executive agency. But the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is more suited to provide quick advice on, and to fight, brushfires than to manage major cross-portfolio coordination of departments – though coordinating units (in health and crime) have at times been parked there and it does (or did) have a central role in “closing the gaps”.

A review by former State Services Commissioner Don Hunn due out soon is not, I am told, the stuff to hold one’s breath for. In any case, stung by characterisation of her rule as “Helengrad”, Ms Clark has been attempting to give ministers more space.

Can she? Ms Clark brooks no obstacle to her objectives. If friends or foes get in her way, she just tramples over them.

Roger Kerr found that when he bankrolled the half-witted campaign in October to link youthful emigration with government policies. Errant or wounding journalism, especially on television, brings rapid ripostes and complaints.

The obverse is Ms Clark’s astonishing accessibility to journalists, who can always get her side of the story, forcefully presented and laced with off-the-record asides. A measure of the frustration this one-woman spin-orchestra has caused an outgunned and out-charmed National party is an internet campaign of vilification of some journalists by its resident bovver boy, former public relations man Murray McCully.

One year into Ms Clark’s premiership, such antics are a gnat to her juggernaut. But management lapses can stall even a juggernaut. She and her government are going to need more sophisticated and more diffuse management techniques than we have seen so far.