Shared problem of a pesky young woman

Exhuming long-gone statesmen for political DNA tests has become a sport of academics in recent years. Last weekend it was Sir Robert Muldoon’s turn. He would have hated it.

Muldoon, Prime Minister from 1975-84, had a fetish for the “ordinary bloke” and practical commonsense. It suffused his entire policy range, including foreign affairs (which he equated with “trade”, though actually he was also driven by a dated sentimental attachment to Britain) and the economy, to the wreckage of which in the early 1980s he contributed considerably.

This attitude is lightyears distant from the current prime ministerial powerhouse’s ease with ideas and theory, though she also keeps a beady eye on practicality.

A closer parallel is in their personal authority. Muldoon dominated his caucus, cowed his ministers and frightened businessmen.

Helen Clark’s pre-eminence and grip on detail are similar and, if she gets a majority this election, might well exceed Muldoon’s.

But Muldoon sentimentally indulged dull friends, some in the cabinet. There is very little observable sentiment in Clark. Conversely, while Clark can send chills up spines, there is not in her Muldoon’s malevolence.

They share impatience with constitutional niceties. Muldoon was rebuked by the courts for purporting to end Labour’s superannuation scheme by press statement in December 1975. Clark on April 15 similarly purported by press statement to make Auckland city’s housing a “strategic asset” from that day, harder to sell.

They share also a pesky young woman’s problematic positioning. Muldoon called the 1984 election early because he couldn’t tolerate renegade backbencher Marilyn Waring’s qualified support of his government when Richard Prebble’s anti-nuclear bill came up for debate. Clark has Laila Harre.

Harre is walking a tightrope, distinguishing her rump Alliance from Labour while conforming in the cabinet. Later this month she will vote in Parliament for the Budget while outside the House complaining that its constraints are too tight.

So far she has shown impressive deftness. But it will get progressively more difficult.

Moreover, it will pose problems for Labour. Harre is an associate in the labour and commerce portfolios and has a wide brief in women’s and youth affairs.

How long can Labour ministers go on allowing her to see cabinet papers that might be used against them in the election? That question has begun to be asked in the Beehive.

Harre insists she wants a Labour-Alliance government post-election. That is an insider’s statement. But what if she uses cabinet papers proposing a unified benefit to underpin Alliance policy when Labour, constrained by Budget realities, can go only partway down the track?

Such discomfort for ministers is potentially the stuff of an early election.

For which National, strangely, has been labouring mightily in the House to give Clark a plausible pretext. To the consternation of small parties, including National’s friend ACT, Gerry Brownlee has been pirouetting on pinheads of parliamentary procedure to embarrass Clark over her, Andertons’ and Harre’s trashing of the spirit of the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act, the waka-jumping law.

National might get lucky. The public doesn’t seem to give a damn. It has already pronounced on the two Alliances by burying them in opinion polls. Why would it bother about their charades in the House? It can sort them out in the election, as it did in 1999 to New Zealand First after that party split amid a splintering coalition.

Meantime the public has swung in behind Labour. If Clark went for an early election now, she would likely do very well.

There is only one significant qualification: Labour depends for the icing on its cake (and a bit of the cake, too) on getting low-income and minority ethnic voters on the roll. Clark revved up the caucus last Tuesday to get cracking on that.

Which brings us back to Muldoon, whose early election caught his party underprepared.

Muldoon skidded from a landslide 48 per cent in 1975 to 40 per cent in his first election as Prime Minister, fewer votes than Labour. Clark, with 39 per cent in 1999, is headed in the reverse direction in hers.

History is not repeating itself. Let dead Prime Ministers lie.