Clark's new friends help define a centre

“Very, very, very close friends,” said Colin Powell. You can’t manage, wheedle, spin or buy the PR for the home front Helen Clark won in Washington.

This person, remember, is a principal architect of the anti-nuclear policy which precipitated the breach with the United States. She it was who stiffened then acting Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer against accepting a visit from the inoffensive Buchanan in early 1985.

And there she is, schmoozing and being courted in the world capital: bonus time with Emperor George Bush, a big beam from Powell, comforting words on a free trade agreement from Robert Zoellick.

At a stroke in Washington Clark occupied yet more centrist territory back home. No longer can she credibly be painted, except to a few, as a lefty who will wreck our economic prospects abroad. Bill English and pro-Anzus Richard Prebble (who, remember, wrote the 1984 Labour bill that prefigured the breach) are squeezed into minority positions.

OK, so it was luck, if the September 11 outrage can be called luck. That gave her the chance to give quick, tangible support to the United States, which paid off last week.

The economy has been lucky for her, too. No Prime Minister can spin or manage rain. Jenny Shipley got two drought years. Clark has had two rainy years, plus a bonus of high prices.

But luck in politics is what you make of it. Clark seized the opening to send in the SAS. She exploited the opening the SAS created to impress her hosts with her deep personal interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs. How many of Powell’s “verys” was that worth?

Go back 50 years. National’s first Prime Minister, Sir Sidney Holland, had luck, too: a wool boom and wharfies who had over-stretched public tolerance. He rode the first and puffed the second into a national crisis.

Holland also pulled the policy marker back a bit from the preceding Labour government’s left positioning. There was a bit more freedom — not enough for his right wing but enough to define and win the centre and win government for 29 of the next 35 years.

Clark has done that in reverse. She has pulled the policy marker back a bit from the preceding National governments’ right positioning. There is a bit more security — not enough for her left wing, which also won’t like her chumming up to warmongering Yanks, but maybe enough to define and command the centre.

The “centre”, in this sense, is not some point between left and right. It is “un-extreme”. It is not a predetermined set of values and attitudes: within limits it can be defined by credible leadership, plus prosperity.

The centre defined by Holland and then Sir Keith Holyoake was a welfare state with some tweaks, “steady-does-it” liberal-conservatism. They defined the political language of their day. If Labour stood too far to the left of that, it could be associated with “reds under the bed” Cold War hysteria.

Clark is running a free-trade economy with some tweaks — miles to the right of Holland and Holyoake but with enough 1970s welfare-statist gestures so far to hold most of her left. Her aim is to define the language of politics and keep National on the “new right” margin.

English, an intuitive centrist, understands this. Strategically, National must contest the centre. English rejects “me-too-ism” as trusting too much to luck. Instead, in his economic framework in mid-April (though “rightwing” on tax) and his social policy later he will aim to define a different centre, one he can present as forward-looking for the under-45s in contrast to Clark’s comforter for the over-45s.

But Clark is the incumbent and, as incumbent, she has another weapon: cooption of people from English’s side. If she gets another term, Jim Bolger and Ross Armstrong will not be the last prominent crossovers. Already, out of the public gaze, many whom one would normally call National are lending Clark some support.

If she can keep that up, she might replicate Holland’s and Holyoake’s coup: make her party the one to cosy up to if one wants appointments and honours or just to be in the game. Winning elections is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Sure, Washington was about foreign affairs and trade. But it was also about commanding domestic politics. She could hardly have scored better.