Going where it is uncomfortable

You know something’s up when a National party conference, liberally grey-haired, starts proceedings with the Maori version of the national anthem and sings it with as much gusto as the English version.

It wasn’t long ago that half the country was aghast that the anthem was sung in Maori before an All Blacks game in Britain. What is going on?

Here is a clue. In his speech later to the conference — of National’s lower North Island region on Saturday — Bill English levelled a challenge: “I want to find myself going to places where you feel uncomfortable, where people have never seen a National member. And if you don’t take me there, I’m going to take you there.”

And he did just that, in a sense. He told them that their yearning for all New Zealanders to be one, as was the case (so they thought) before their hair turned grey, can’t be met: “We were born different. There are different communities.”

English is taking his party of monoculturalists to an uncomfortable place: biculturalism, of a sort.

The Labour party, viewing victory through a pink haze of soaring poll ratings, might spare a minute’s thought at its “congress” this weekend to ponder what English is doing.

English is setting in place a platform for the next term. Labour might usefully spend this weekend doing the same — and that means going places where it feels uncomfortable.

In fact its leader has. Helen Clark has been places where most Labourites, including herself not long ago, would be uncomfortable: business boardrooms, Remuera dining rooms, the Oval Office — Tory territory.

This is part of creating a new centre. By showing herself able to rub along with people from outside her university common-room comfort zone, Clark has been building an image for herself of a Prime Minister of all the people — including some who will never vote for her.

And in doing that she is creating a new political centre, with a set of values to which a large number of moderate voters can subscribe enough to lend her their vote.

The centre is not a defined region with set boundaries which a leader and a party occupy by doing and saying what those in that region want. A mix of acute attention to hopes and fears and strong promotion of ideas, policies and values can move and expand the centre in various ways.

Jenny Shipley let slip this chance in 1998-99. Clark has grasped it now. English is trying to get up a counter-set of values, to build the nucleus of a competing centre which he can eventually expand.

Perhaps the most striking example in the past 20 years of moving the centre to encompass new territory is the anti-nuclear policy. A minority taste in the early 1980s, it is now (rightly or wrongly) an inescapable fact of political life in the centre.

You might say the same of the open economy. There is a lot around the edges that people don’t like and Clark’s gestures to those discomforts have helped her build her new centre. But not many want to wind the clock back to the rigid economy of the early 1980s.

But is Clark’s new centre secure for Labour?

Here is a clue from Steve Maharey. Last week he confirmed that among the options to finance tertiary education is a scheme of individualised learning accounts.

This is revolutionary for a 1970s social democrat. But it has not drawn the rebuff from Clark this sort of musing would have two years ago.

The point is this: meek acceptance by consumers of uniform mass-produced goods and services went some time ago. Now producers must customise.

English edged down this route in health in the late 1990s. But the Clark government has reverted to the “factory state”, supplying mass-produced uniform health and education services.

That is fine for the over-60s, who grew up amid the marvels of assembly-line factories. But it is unlikely to wow the under-40s, who have grown up expecting myriad choice.

They are a voting minority now. But they will be the majority in due course. The winner of the big game this decade will incorporate their expectations of customised service into the centre he or she builds.

That is not the way the 50-something greying stalwarts of this weekend’s “congress” see the world. But they are already the past or nearly so. Clark’s challenge is to shape the future.