A pricked pride stings us all

There is a point at which a government turns bad, like an apple. This one is still miles from that point but this past week it gave us a glimpse of what it will be like.

* Arts Minister Helen Clark’s signature on creations she didn’t create spawned much raucus and scathing mirth and made her an international laughing stock. The mirth was therapeutic for a nation mourning for its national sport.

* Sports Minister Trevor Mallard won plaudits from furious footie fans for saying what he would like to do with a Heinecken bottle — but Education Minister Mallard might have worried about the message to schoolboys (some recently in court for doing something similar).

* Jim Anderton’s star yacht-making investor turned out to have the sort of past that gives capitalism a bad name and helped give the Alliance its start in life.

In a trice the government slipped off the high moral ground. Feet-of-clay politics is back.

That the Prime Minister signed others’ daubings and doodlings to help charities is no big deal. It was bad form, a bad example and dishonest. But the main benefit, the money, went to the charities.

It doesn’t affect the economy or the supply of education or health services. Most people probably laughed at the scything of a tall poppy, registered her contrition and moved on. And Clark on Friday atoned, with a dash of humour: she drew a questionmark and signed it for a charity.

But there is more to it.

Contrition pure and simple is not the Prime Minister’s style. She said others did it too, as if that excused her.

She could not publicly substantiate that and was duly embarrassed in Parliament for it. Yet a split second’s reflection on what she did, in opposition, with Jenny Shipley’s gaucheries — “I made it up”; “we did not discuss politics” — would have spared her.

The first rule of media management is: if in a hole, discard the spade — and trowel and even teaspoons, anything that can be used for digging. But this government does not have a discernible media strategy. Instead the Prime Minister is readily accessible and gives real answers. It works a treat, it’s good government but it is ad hoc.

Which invites ad hoc mistakes. The Prime Minister usually conducts herself with great skill and thorough forethought, as in her Washington triump. But when her pride was pricked she lost her bearings.

And in getting her response wrong she uncovered a potential weak point the opposition has been trying to spotlight: hubris. If anything can kill this government, even possibly yet in this election, it will be if voters get too big a whiff of hubris.

The value to the government of a bad week like last week, especially since the Prime Minister contributed, is that it may have got ministers’ feet back on the ground, where mortal politicians tread.

But that’s not the end of it. There is a governance issue which touches all of us.

Step back a century for the pointer — from United States President Theodore Roosevelt who, like Clark, gave rein in office to passion for nature conservation and scepticism about unrestrained capitalism.

Writing to a friend in 1909 after he had reluctantly kept an impetuous promise four years earlier not to run again, Roosevelt said that, if he had run (and he likely would have won), “my power for useful service would have forever been lessened, because nothing could have prevented the wide diffusion of the impression that I had not really meant what I had said, that my actions did not really square with the highest and finest code of ethics…”

Keeping her word, meaning what she says, telling it straight: these have not only been gold in Clark’s political bank but have mitigated some of the disgust with the political system the 1980s-90s revolution engendered. That is immensely valuable.

It is also a central reason, along with a benign economy and policies which have taken the edge off National’s hard-faced 1990s, for her and her government’s soaring poll ratings. Last week’s poll, taken as Bill English marked out divergent paths from Labour in economic and foreign policy, seemed to shrug off the “art” signatures.

But, deep down, her conduct may have undone a little of that restoration of trust. That would damage not only herself but all of us.