MPs are slowly getting the hang of managing MMP. Another couple of Parliaments and they may be there.
What has held them up — those in the two old parties at least — is that they have been responding to the incentives of the old system. In making her unspoken but nevertheless unmistakable bid for a majority, Clark displayed that mentality.
But now she has a different prize dangling in front of her and it is one worth every bit as much to a major party leader as majority rule. It offers long-term government on the Scandinavian model.
MMP, as practised in Germany, is a two-main-party system not much different from the one we used to know. Either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats are in power, with a small party, and there are one or two small parties.
This has loosened a bit in the 1990s, partly because of the rise of the Greens and partly as a result of the absorption of the old east Germany, with its communist hangover.
But the logic of our system is that it would fine down to a two-plus-two arrangement. Until early this year that seemed to be nicely on track.
Then came National’s descent.
What Clark can see beckoning is something more like the Scandinavian system: a strong centre-left party flanked by a party to its left and a party to its right versus a fragmented right opposition around a weak centre-right party, National.
National’s original rationale was to be the conservative alternative to a reforming and at times radical Labour party. But National cast that off in the 1990s, taking on the mantle of radical reformer. If Clark now takes over as the principal conservative, even if of a slightly left variety, what is National’s role? What makes it distinct?
The right did not fight the July election, at least not noisily, on economic, tax-cutting grounds. Those grounds have lost their primacy with an electorate that mostly doesn’t support tax cuts and is more worried about service cuts.
So the right parties fought on crime, the Treaty and, in New Zealand First’s case, immigration. These are psycho-social issues, not socio-economic ones. They do not fit into the electoral mould from which the old two-party system was made.
These are issues on which the left parties are inherently weak. They tend to see criminals as at least partly the victim of social conditions. They draw much support from Maori as a socio-economic underclass. They celebrate multiculturalism, which includes often struggling groups in socio-economic terms.
So left parties are vulnerable to a coordinated attack from the right.
Except for one complication: Peter Dunne.
Dunne and his motley United Future crew are right of centre on both economic and moral grounds. But he emphasised during the campaign the need to attack the causes of crime as much as the criminals and backed multiculturalism.
So there is raw material there for Clark to work on in fashioning a working arrangement that draws United Future into a Labour-led tent.
Whether she can do that will depend on how well or badly two huge management jobs are done. One is Dunne’s management of his greenhorn mob. It has a range of views almost as disparate as you might expect in a large party, from relatively liberal across to downright reactionary.
What are his chances? About 50-50. He is personable and clearsighted, with high personal mana. But there will be some skeletons in the cupboards of such an untried lot. And even if he succeeds, he will find it very difficult to maintain the astonishing vote he got on July 27. After the next election he will be lucky to have four or five MPs.
But his management problems pale beside Clark’s. She has to keep the Greens and her own leftwing and Maori in the same tent as Dunne’s evangelical Christians.
She is helped by two incentives on the Greens and United Future to accommodate her. The Greens cannot progress their programme through the right. Dunne has no future if he cannot establish his party as a stabilising force in an unstable system, in the way centre parties are in northern Europe.
But to get there she will have to shuck her nostalgia for majority government and fully embrace MMP. That is quite a change of mentality for someone brought up in a Labour party that made solidarity discipline articles of doctrine.
Can she do it? Give her the same odds as Peter Dunne.