Three challenges for Helen Clark

Three huge challenges face Helen Clark in this second term. They are challenges which dwarf her achievements in the first.

These past two and a-half years she has eased the pain of revolution. The 1990s are now definitely behind us. Even though it was the 1980s-90s policies that halted the economic slide, most people feel relieved.

But the election result forcefully states that she must now turn her mind, her energies and her authority to other things.

First, she must master MMP. The election was called in the hope of a majority on patently flimsy excuses. The electorate rumbled her. She has 41 per cent. That is a modest score for a leading government party. Along with her allowable elation, she might sensibly feel chastened.

Her preference is for minority single-party government which in effect she has with Jim Anderton and Matt Robson onside. But that requires careful collaboration with the Greens and United Future. Those two parties are at the outer ends of any grouping you could call Labour-based.

But that is the point of MMP. Under FPP a party could, as National did, command the centre from its base a little to one side of centre. Under MMP command of the centre requires the major party to lock in to a long-term working arrangement a party that straddles or is on the other side of the divide.

Peter Dunne has given Clark that opportunity. His party is mostly to the right of the divide, particularly on moral issues. That is difficult for Clark’s left wing to live with.

How she manages that, or not, will be worthy of a case study by politicial scientists. If she pulls it off, she might set up Labour for a long period of office, just as National did under FPP after 1949.

The second challenge comes from those who flocked to Winston Peters.

Labour people habitually think of society in terms of income levels and social conditions. Labour lines up with the less well off.

But there is another dimension that drives votes: how people feel about their circumstances and the state of society around them.

That is not just about income. It is also about their personal security and the security of their culture. Both are under assault.

Liberals such as Helen Clark celebrate cultural diversity, recognise responsibility for the lingering damage of colonisation and see criminals as often victims themselves.

But, judging by Saturday, at least 10 per cent of voters see cultural fragmentation, favouritism to select Maori and criminals as solely bad. They fear the society they knew has gone or is under attack. Few are fascists or Archie Bunkers; most are decent folk. Their fears, concerns and hopes are legitimate.

A Prime Minister who wants political stability needs to recognise the genuineness of those fears, concerns and hopes. A Prime Minister with pretensions to long-term rule by her party needs to find a way to turn such recognition into inclusive policy.

As long as she fails to do that Peters will drive up the fears and so will ACT, judging by the crime and Treaty focuses of its election campaign. National will be tugged that way too, especially without Hekia Parata to raise cain.

Dunne, having merged with two ethnic minority parties in the late 1990s and sporting an Indian woman in his crew, offers Clark a way forward. She would be undermining her own attempt at a broad-based government if she listened to her left wing (and her left-beating heart) rather than Dunne.

Clark’s third challenge is to lift economic growth. She faces an immediate slowdown which might prompt voters later this year to see her midyear election as a cynical manoeuvre while the going was still good. (And, ironically, in November growing economic fear might have driven voters to her safe haven.)

She might face a lot worse if American consumers clam up as their life savings dwindle on the stock market. But even if not, she must demonstrate by the end of this term she has policies that are making a difference. And she must do that in harness with the Greens who think the sort of consumer-respondent growth most people want is unclean.

That list is a big job sheet for a second term. She cruised the first term with skill that at times was as good as the best of Prime Ministers. The cruising has just stopped.