It is a fact of life that brazenness is an ingredient of durable governments. This one is already showing signs it has got the hang of that.
A year ago Prime Minister Helen Clark seemed to be firmly putting parental leave off the agenda for this parliamentary term.
The Alliance, low in the polls, was pushing parental leave as one of several ploys to get public traction. But business was in a frenzy over taxes, ACC and the Employment Relations Bill and parental leave talk ran counter to Clark’s need to lower the temperature on the business front.
In April this year parental leave resurfaced as official policy, a compromise of Alliance and Labour objectives. Clark insists she did not rule out parental leave last year.
In February 2000 Clark trumpeted a cabinet committee dedicated to “closing the gaps” between Maori and Pacific islanders and the rest of the population. She would chair it.
But by August, thanks to Tariana Turia’s freewheeling speeches, “gaps” were embarrassing. In September Social Services Minister Steve Maharey was detailed off to write articles and make statements that “closing the gaps” was always meant to be between rich and poor generally.
Over the next three months Clark and her ministers expunged “gaps” from their lexicon. In December the “gaps” committee was re-framed as a “social equity” committee, with Maharey as chair.
Then came the reverse from the reverse. In January Clark began a campaign of reassuring Maori that only the name had changed and the government was still dedicated to special efforts to lift Maori and Pacific island performance.
It was breathtaking and it was effective. Unrest in the electorate was quelled. Maori were also soothed.
In late April a muddle over the community services card had the government in the gun first for putting 1270 superannuitants at risk of losing their cards and then, when it hastily plugged that hole, even more in the gun for denying the card to thousands of working households on similar incomes.
This is really bad politics because low-average-income people are the government’s core vote. Grumbles in Labour’s and the Alliance’s lower ranks and in the unions bore that out.
The government’s response was to insist that no one had lost their cards “as a result of movements in the CPI”. That was a reference to the fact that the 1270 superannuitants who stood to lose their cards were put in that state by an automatic, inflation-indexed increase in their pension payments over which they had no control.
What this brazen distinction did not say was that any low-income person who had won a wage increase that took the wage over the threshold the 1270 superannuitants crossed would lose the card.
What were workers in this category supposed to do? The message behind the posturing seemed to be that wage workers could — and maybe even should — refuse their increase.
National and ACT had a field day in Parliament. But remember Jenny Shipley’s coup on superannuitants in September 1998.
Faced with an economic downturn, Shipley severed the link between superannuation and wages and linked it to prices. Since prices over time rise more slowly than wages, superannuitants’ relative standard of living, compared with those in work, would fall. Shipley brazenly asserted superannuitants would not be worse off.
The oldies weren’t fooled and Labour milked their anger. Deborah Morris left the government over it, having managed first at least to get a 60%-of-wages floor put under the cut.
Labour and the Alliance have since restored the pre-1998 wage linkage. But back in election year 1999 it was a large ingredient in the meal the two parties made of honesty in government.
It was a large meal. Manifesto promises were broken by 1980s-90s Labour and National governments. New Zealand First campaigned in 1996 on getting rid of the National government, only to prop it up in a cynical coalition after the election. Shipley’s subsequent minority government was sustained by a hotchpotch of misfits.
A squeaky clean Clark made much of that tawdriness before a receptive electorate.
And for the most part her government has been more transparent than its predecessor. It has routinely issued heaps of cabinet papers after making decisions, including papers embarrassingly contrary to its own position. Miles more material is available on websites.
But politicians are politicians first and governors second. And when the second cuts across the first, this government has shown it can be as ruthless about its priorities as any.