The unlikely coalition glue — Jim Anderton

It takes a strong Prime Minister to make a strong coalition government. It takes a constructive Deputy Prime Minister to glue it.

Only with brave imagination could one two years ago foresee Jim Anderton in this role. But in that role he is — in three ways.

First is his visible subordination to Helen Clark. This is Labour’s government and predominantly Labour’s rhetoric.

When they appear together, as in launching the new Cabinet Office manual last week, they look and sound a team — almost the buddies they were before the 1980s schism. They don’t always sing exactly the same song. But they do sing almost always from the same hymnal. There are few jarring jingles.

When they do pick up different songbooks, there is not the rancour nor the drama of the 1996-98 coalition. The Alliance’s vote against the Singapore free trade agreement last year was accommodated within the rules they made pre-election — and it has been a rare formal divergence.

The second ingredient in Mr Anderton’s glue is to make limited demands. He is a tough member of the Budget finance team, enforcing spending caps.

Sure, he has got his kiwibank, against Labour’s better judgment. There are some other wins Labour would rather not have had to concede. Over Easter he pushed two other differentiating notions: free doctor visits for under-18s and a fund from his economic development budget for student summer jobs.

A junior coalition partner must differentiate or suffocate. The Greens are securing their market niche with skill and charm. The Alliance needs track-record bids to take to next year’s election.

But Mr Anderton’s differentiations seldom run counter to Labour’s deeper instincts and mostly point in a direction Labour would go if it had the revenue and was not constrained by world market forces. Mr Anderton’s Easter eggs were of that ilk. So is Laila Harré’s parental leave initiative.

The third ingredient in Mr Anderton’s coalition glue may turn out the most potent.

Crucial to this government’s success in its own terms is to get the economy growing faster (towards “first-world” income levels) in order to fund even Labour’s less ambitious social programmes.

And who is Minister of Economic Development?

In the coalition’s early days Labour thought this a largely harmless activity for the hyperactive Mr Anderton. He could do little harm on his modest budget and might do some good. The real action would be in Pete Hodgson’s and Paul Swain’s higher-tech portfolios. So the story went.

But it was not the whole story, Labour’s top brass now recognises. Without squeezing the most out of the traditional (resource-based) export industries which provide the cash flow, progress towards first-world status would be sluggish.

That requires new knowledge (technology), Mr Hodgson’s and Mr Swain’s territory. But it also requires investment.

This is the third ingredient in Mr Anderton’s glue. His initial contribution was to pull together in January forest industry executives and bureaucrats to identify obstacles to development and ways of removing them (without subsidies).

This “wood processing group” had its second meeting last Wednesday, having identified skilled workforce development as first priority, with roads and port upgrading next — and an innovative network approach to roads costing which brings them nearer affordability. There is now some prospect these basic needs will materialise (through government, local government and industry action). Industry people are giving the process a tentative tick.

The Ministry of Economic Development (MED) is handing leadership of the group’s officials to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Mr Anderton is moving MED on to textiles, clothing and footwear to identify what that sector can do in a near-tariff-free environment.

Meantime, Mr Anderton is an important player (with Ms Clark and Mr Hodgson) in other projects to get new investment that might go begging without some path-smoothing by ministers and officials. Yachts are the prime example so far.

Yes, Mr Anderton is bombastic and often gratingly dogmatic. But he is also a constructive deputy, limited in his demands and ferociously energetic. Ms Clark bestrides this government. But Mr Anderton is much of the glue.