Deep underneath this election campaign there is change. Not actual change but the need to accept change.
Why did genetic modification grow horns? In part, because there was a vacuum where debate on the nation’s future might have been.
* Labour has made a virtue of settling the place down, not painting grand visions; Helen Clark’s unmemorable slogan is that tomorrow has already been done today.
* National wants back to the 1990s, with some of Labour’s policies tacked on. Its even more unmemorable slogan is either a threat that if you don’t behave you will get what you deserve or a promise that if you do behave you won’t have to lift a finger to get what you deserve.
* The Greens are promoting a futuristic path forward. But few want to go there with them.
* ACT is no longer sure it wants radical change and is groping for a “liberal” ethos.
* Winston Peters is offering to reverse some changes of the 1980s and 1990s.
None of that will generate among individuals the mindshift needed to get to 4 per cent annual economic growth, which Labour, National and ACT have targeted.
To be sure, the parties (bar Greens) have all got policies which they say will get us to 4 per cent and keep us there. But none is likely to work unless the people want them to.
Policy can erect or reduce barriers to faster economic growth. But that in itself does not automatically deliver faster or slower growth.
Some countries with what seem high regulatory barriers to growth have nevertheless had impressive rates of growth. Some countries with low regulatory barriers have been average or worse. This country did less well than more-regulated Australia in the 1990s.
What policy alone cannot do is effect a change in people’s ambitions and will to change: individuals deciding to make more of themselves, take risks or grasp opportunities. Ambition and will to change decide how effective policy will be, not the other way round.
To be sure, the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s forced changes in behaviour. But for most people that was not a change of ambition but a grudging adjustment coupled with a deep distrust of change.
In fact, the 1980s and 1990s policy shift was much more than radical right-wing economic reform. A rising generation had already made itself felt in the arts, literature and music and was ready to cut the colonial umbilical chord to London.
The 1980s and early 1990s were in effect our independence revolution. And that revolution coincided with the arrival here of two worldwide waves of change that swept our sort of countries: neoliberal economics and indigenous rights. The result was deep social disruption.
After the mayhem of a revolution there is either a counter-revolution or a consolidation.
Clark has offered consolidation, which a change-weary public has gratefully accepted. Unless something astonishing happens before July 27, that will make her Prime Minister for a second term.
But what then? This is not the first-world nation Clark dreams of. It can’t afford the education and health systems nor the environmental excellence of a first-world nation.
To be a first-world nation there must be change. That is not some rightwing view. It is Michael Cullen’s. He will take the rap if at the end of Labour’s time in power we’re still second-world.
Cullen’s conundrum is how to get people to accept that they as individuals will need constantly and willingly to change through their lives.
Maybe the post-revolutionary under-40s have grasped it, which might account for the huge increase in participation in post-compulsory education and training.
But for most over-40s “change” in the past 20 years has equalled “danger”. They are unlikely to embrace a government preaching change and so cautious, conservative 52-year-old Clark is not likely to prod them to. Though every now and then there is a hint she might, that is not to be paraded during a soothing campaign.
Can 40-year-old Bill English do it? Sometimes when he thinks aloud he sounds as if he intends to.
But English is also innately conservative — “community-founded”, some in National put it. After the election, if he stays leader, we can expect more of that tone from him.
That sounds suspiciously like consolidation. Change is on hold.