A prize fight

It’s a brains trust contest: superbright Helen Clark versus double-degree Bill English.

It’s also a contest of two at-ease crowd-minglers: hearts must be won as well as minds.

And it’s a contest of two very resilient characters — though very differently so. Respect, trust and confidence must also be earned.

If that’s not enough, it’s a contest of two conservatives. They are wooing an electorate that wants quiet after the upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s.

We’ve seen superbright before, in 1984: express-train-brain David Lange versus beat-the-eggheads Sir Robert Muldoon.

And flesh-pressers? Mike More versus Jim Bolger, twice, in 1990 and 1993.

And tough? Sir Robert again, versus Bill Rowling, three times, in 1975, 1978 and 1981. (Yes, Mr Rowling was tough.)

Conservative? Sir Keith Holyoake and Norman Kirk in 1966 and 1969. (Yes, Mr Kirk was conservative.)

But all four dimensions in one contest? For all that it has looked lopsided in round one, this is a prize fight. If it goes to a second and third round, we will see a fight to be remembered.

But how differently they fight.

Ms Clark does her homework in minute and compendious detail. She boned up on George Bush before her Oval Office meeting in March, drawing on her own deep understanding and broad knowledge of international affairs but also the insights of friend-of-the-Bush-family Brian Mulroney, former Canadian Prime Minister.

When Clark turns up at a press conference there is seldom a topic she cannot respond on. Often she will come with a sheaf of papers dug out on her orders. Had John Campbell set aside stardom and sought information on the GM corn scare and therefore told her the topic in advance, she would have turned up with chapter and verse.

She is in fact a perpetual student. She came into office with a gaping hole in her portfolio: business and the economy. She has since been mining the expertise and experience of economists and top businesspeople.

But don’t look to her for the grand vista, the generous concepts, the 2020 vision. She is seriously brainy but not an intellectual, especially not of the ivory tower variety. Projects, not theory, are what engage her.

Contrast Mr English. He is big on big pictures, comfortable with concepts — subtle intellect veiled by that Dipton (pronounced Dippn) drawl. That is Mr English the literature graduate. You can’t imagine Ms Clark reading novels, at least not for pleasure.

But subtle intellects often don’t make sharp opposition. They don’t get their kicks getting a hit away on a Labour minister. English is learning that art but is happier divining the policy imperatives of our society 10 years from now.

And his intrigue with the broad sweep and the long view has given Mr English a serious political disability: he sees all sides of an argument. Sir Douglas Graham had that affliction, which is why he has graduated to deputy chair of Michael Cullen’s super fund “guardians” instead of to a prime ministerial pension.

It doesn’t help Mr English that he sometimes laces his asides with irony, which a listener can miss and thereby mistake his meaning.

Mr English is also not a man to dot every i. Where Ms Clark can infuriate with her fussiness and her determination to get every hit away, Mr English can frustrate with his easygoing delegation.

Though it is partly a factor of his newness to the top job, he demonstrates gaps in his knowledge whenever he gets off his core topics. It is painful to watch him stumbling on defence and foreign affairs or the Treaty.

There is another disability, or so it is judged in this sound-bite age of “reality” and “weak link” television: Mr English does not flash cold steel. People do not see the affable fellow through a screen of power. He is “one of us”, oozes likeability, a laid-back lizard on a sunny rock.

Journalists trailing him on the campaign have marvelled he has kept calm and chipper as the polls have dived. That is because he is deeply and securely centred, the legacy of a lifetime of support from strong women. Wife Mary stands an inch taller in campaign battledress. He doesn’t care a whit. (Peter Davis is entirely in Clark’s shadow.)

His inner security makes him tough. He can ride out storms that would flatten a less well brought-up lad. Yes, he can lose his rag. But he does not lose his balance.

Yet he is judged weak. He is not.

Ms Clark can do affable, too. Three years ago she couldn’t work a room. Now she plunges among lunchtime shoppers with unfeigned enjoyment. The smile is big and convincing, the eyes sparkle. And not just shoppers: she has seduced (in the nicest meaning of that term) a good many businessmen over the past two years.

She can do humour as well. Her press conferences often ripple with a dry and supple jokeyness. The shows a glimpse of her conduct in her inner circle: funny and gossipy and warm. She is intensely loyal to those in the inner circle.

But she is vulnerable. Over the years this intensely shy, intensely private person has built up a thick carapace. She has withstood intense pressure and abuse that would have broken most men: the proof of that was her rough early years as Labour leader.

Result: she has zero tolerance for anyone outside her inner circle who damages her prime ministership. The face contorts. The atmosphere goes icy cold. There is a scent of menace in the air. She is unsentimental with faltering colleagues (ask Marian Hobbs and even “good friend” Margaret Wilson) and ruthless if put in difficulty or under criticism — especially if some word or passage of events hurts her. Ask journalists who have a got a word wrong.

Hurt? Can this toughie be hurt? Yes. Under the carapace is a fragile being who was mortifyingly wounded by the humiliation over the painting signatures affair. She cannot bear to be laughed at. She flies off the handle when her integrity is questioned, as you saw twice last week. When Ms Clark lashes out, as often as not it is the hurt that you are seeing.

Similarly with her arrogance. Much of what looks like arrogance is probably more accurately defensiveness, a determination not to let anyone at the fragile being under the carapace.

So who’s the strong one? Each is in very different ways.

Their conservatism is very different, too.

Ms Clark is a dual conservative.

First, she brings from her farm upbringing rural virtues of thrift and hard work. That makes her a fiscal dry and intolerant of waste, pretension and high-living glass-tower consultants.

Second, her social democracy is conservative, acquired as an overlay at university at a time when social democracy ruled the ideological roost and Norman Kirk’s 1940s folk-version of it was in charge. Ms Clark is no radical feminist or epitome of political correctness. She is suspicious of, though has warmed slowly to, fashionable 1980s “third way” social democracy.

In office she has been mainly pragmatic. The 1980s economic reforms offended her sense of social order and she has set out to restore that order.

For his part, Mr English has since the late 1990s been musing on a new conservatism that takes post-Rogernomics as the base on which to build a society that is stable and ordered and makes its changes in a measured, incremental manner — as Sir Keith Holyoake did in the 1960s.

He hasn’t got his party there yet. National’s policy still oozes 1990s mantras which he lacks the authority to suppress or rephrase, though he has tacked on acceptance of much of Labour’s positive supply-side interventions to boost research, development and industry.

Ms Clark had the same difficulty bringing Labour round from its 1980s revolutionary period in her first term as Labour’s leader from 1993-96.

Now, political psychologist John Johansson of Victoria University says, Ms Clark’s “personal narrative” as leader is precisely in tune with her party’s “political narrative”. And he adds that she has proved unexpectedly adaptable.

But Mr English’s personal narrative, he says, is “only just beginning to penetrate public consciousness” and is seen “only in flashes”. And there are mixed messages: he has not grafted his personal narrative on to his party’s political narrative.

So, Dr Johansson says, when Mr English says what he believes there is not the same force as when Ms Clark does. She has fashioned the office of Prime Minister around her. There are times when she looks so thoroughly installed in office as to seem monarchical.

But those with long memories know a time when Ms Clark was unconvincing and disjoined. Her story since 1996 tells of a long journey.

Will Mr English traverse the same journey? That depends how hungry he is. He has given the impression of being drawn to the prime ministership rather than driven to it by some inner urgency. Only just in this campaign have I seen hunger for the first time.

Ms Clark is very hungry.

Confronted with a curly question, Mr English will sometimes grin boyishly, in acknowledgement of an incongruity or inconsistency. It is human and in a way attractive but it undermines authority, which is an indispensable quality for a prime ministerial aspirant.

Ms Clark would never allow herself that. She would never eat chips for lunch in front of cameras and go on to launch a health policy promoting “healthy diet”, nor, as a former Health Minister like English, allow her party’s policy to promise the impossible, to fund the “best possible” health system, as National’s does. And if that did slip through she wouldn’t, as he did, then mutter “practical” as a substitute for “possible”. She would have bluffed some reconciliation.

But it is just her first term. And at some point the international stage will beckon. English just has to stick around.

And if he doesn’t? Young first-termer Simon Power is every bit a National leader in the marking: intelligent, tall, handsome, charming and very middle-New Zealand. Labour has no matcher yet for him.