Hail to a man of manners

The first duties of a government, most would agree, are to keep the peace, keep the nation safe, keep its citizens safe and keep out pests and nasty new diseases.

So at least argued Simon Upton, now off to lusher intellectual pastures in Paris. As Minister of State Services in 1998, Mr Upton worried that years of squeezing the bureaucracy had put at risk those “core” capabilities.

The varroa mite made the point, prompting a new biosecurity strategy last week. Australian pressure on social security for trans-Tasman migrants reflects a diminished feeling of obligation in Canberra after National’s defence spending cuts and Labour-Alliance’s continued parsimony. Recently there have been jokes and worse about cost-cutting in the police.

This government’s record on the “core” is at best tepid. Yet it is Labour’s core voters who have most to lose from sub-optimal policing and lack of access to help in Australia.

This point bears making as government MPs head off joyful and triumphant for their summer break, basking in a 13 per cent average opinion poll lead in December for the left parties (Labour, Alliance and the Greens) over the right parties (National, ACT and Future United) — back to election levels.

Even some poll-axed National and ACT MPs have privately volunteered that the government — though not, if you see it from their point of view, the country — has had a good year.

Both those parties now face some deep soul-searching.

Richard Prebble is one of this year’s failures, vacating ACT’s niche on the principled right for populist moonbeams in Winston Peters’ wasteland. Worse, he has imparted a love of the chase to newcomer Stephen Franks, whose impressively crafted speeches on bills might in a different climate have recovered some respectability for ACT. National fears ACT might not make 5 per cent in 2002.

But for its part, National, despite setting up three policy taskforces and running two public seminars with outside input, still wears musty 1990s clothes. Partly, that is because it can�t be a convincing 2000s party without some costly changes of faces — which is the nub of Michelle Boag’s feisty and inevitably divisive presidential campaign over the next seven months.

The only senior National MP to have raised his stocks is Wyatt Creech, who will probably next month flag his retirement. Mid-ranked Jerry Brownlee made a rhetorical splash at the conference. Maurice Williamson correctly identified Simon Power as the pick of the new bunch.

The comforting news for the right is that in early October the left’s average lead was only 2 per cent. What can go up that fast can, at least in theory, go down again just as fast. Summers have a habit of turning into autumns.

The government’s good summer ratings owe much to Helen Clark’s tough-minded cauterisation of the two gaping wounds, relations with business and the “gaps”. But she has much to do yet to get business onside. And on the “gaps” she had to jettison, in unseemly haste and with unseemly cynicism, a central policy plank.

Moreover, more of this year’s fall and rise was economy-driven — that is, they were largely the product of luck. This government is hostage to the now quivering American asset bubble.

For all that, Labour and the Alliance have cause to be chuffed. The government has done pretty much what Labour said it would, at speed and with determination — with Jim Anderton proving a paragon of lynchpin solidarity.

And there are some real achievers. It is hard to disagree with Ms Clark’s own top rating for Trevor Mallard (now her anointed successor in the event of a disaster on Mount Aconcagua) and Paul Swain, the year’s fastest developing minister. To them I would add Pete Hodgson and Mark Gosche.

But these are early days for judgment of ministers. So this year’s accolade should go elsewhere. Mr Upton again provides a lead: amid his lambasting of Parliament last week, he excepted Speaker Jonathan Hunt’s grip on question time.

A man of venerable manners, Mr Hunt threw Mr Prebble out on his first day, thereby setting a new discipline in an institution that had seemed beyond redemption. There is now, sporadically, a discernible decorum. That signal achievement makes him my politician of the year.