Still to earn: a real mandate

The cabinet starts meeting again next week, with lots on its plate. One large item, which will not be specifically on the agenda but hovers over all the government does, is mandate.

Helen Clark has made a great virtue of doing what she promised at the election. There are good reasons in political theory and practice for that.

The 1984 Labour and 1990 National governments sprang major reforms on unforewarned voters. Then in 1996 New Zealand First, which had made electoral hay of their breaches of promise, travestied much of its programme in joining with National.

So Ms Clark had a point in 1999 when she argued that the integrity of the political system required a government that kept its word. It was also practical vote-winning politics to do so.

But where some theoreticians and some practical politicians go wrong is to assume mandate is for all policy detail and lasts from one election all the way to the next.

Mandate must be continuously re-earned. Which requires good management and good policy (and luck, but that is beyond politicians’ control).

The government has some earning to do yet. Ms Clark, extending her concept of mandate, insists this is a no-surprises government. And, to be sure, by the riproaring standards of the 1980s and early 1990s, this government is a pussycat, as leftwing commentators constantly wail.

Nevertheless, last year sported a goodly quota of surprises. A selection:

The top tax rate rise to 39 cents, which was not a surprise in itself, triggered a raft of hasty consequential changes that were surprises.
The Employment Relations Bill, as originally drafted, went beyond pre-election policy.
The big cigarette tax rise in May came out of the blue. (It also, surprisingly, hit low-income smokers, core Labour voters, hardest and needed compensating repair work).
Tax breaks to encourage research were dumped in the Budget. Embarrassed by this broken promise, the Prime Minister surprised her Finance Minister (“spooked by the Treasury”) by promptly promising to reopen the matter.
The Alliance was surprised in early June when Ms Clark squelched some of its policy ambitions. Ministers have been surprised by castigations from the mountain-top.
Maori got their turn when the much-trumpeted “closing the gaps” policy, which was given its own cabinet committee with Ms Clark herself in the chair, was suddenly pronounced extinct.
And two ministers bit the dust. A bit careless, that.
So in 2000 this was not a no-surprises government. The election mandate was exceeded or embellished or countermanded in parts.

Nevertheless, the general thrust (as distinct from the detail) of the government’s policy is unsurprising: recognisably Labour, relatively moderate and flagged in advance.

And voters seem generally to approve. Labour in December averaged 6 per cent more in polls than its 1999 election score. The government as a whole rated 4 per cent more.

That looks rather like mandate. So why can’t the government henceforth just coast along on the present policy settings, tacking a little round political and economic breezes, suppressing surprises?

First, even riding high in the polls, the government has explicit support from only half the voters. And last year’s poll roller-coaster showed how fragile ratings are.

Second, circumstances change. Much poll support is acquiescence, the opposite of mandate. An economic dip (as last year), Treaty rhetoric (as last year) or racial tension or a big union-employer stoush could quickly turn acquiescence into hostility.

Third, the government has accumulated mandated expectations for government services, particularly health, that it will not be able to fulfil within its self-imposed fiscal limits.

Fourth, even a majority vote does not mandate each detail of policy. There are liberal, PC, feminist, conservationist and Treaty dimensions to the government’s programme that are not part of majority New Zealand’s lifestyle and values. That is, they are not mandated — at least, not yet. .

So what is this year’s challenge for the re-congregating cabinet? To put an end to surprises. To ensure policy does not get adrift of core Labour and middle-ground opinion and values.

In short, to build a real mandate. It is a tall order.