The complex challenge of consensus-building

Tariana Turia is a person to watch as Helen Clark gets down to managing her second term. Turia is the living embodiment of whanaungatanga, which comes fraught with complications for a society mostly still British in its ways and for a Labour party still hung up on solidarity.

Clark was raised in the old Labour party. The unions’ card votes decided crucial matters at the conference. In the caucus the leader’s majority ruled.

It was a ruthlessly hierarchical organisation, like the classic company.

But smarter modern companies have understood that assembly-line conformity and top-down discipline of workers as ciphers are suboptimal in a world increasingly demanding tailored goods and services.

So it should not have come as the surprise it did to traditional politicians — majority-seeking Clark among them — that post-1980s Parliaments and policy and service development require similar flexibility. The electorate’s multi-choice decision on July 27 has now driven that message home.

Voters moved the preference marker slightly to the right but broke up the right. The instruction to Clark was to push on with left-led centrist policies but pay careful attention to some of the messages from the right.

Clark can safely ignore — in political, if not in economic, terms — the messages on the economy from ACT and the National right. Security is back in vogue: security of income, security of access to public services such as education and health and security for old age: all easy fits with the Labour mantra.

But another set of security messages was embedded in July 27: security of society and culture.

New Zealand First’s vote was borne along on fears that the Treaty of Waitangi and immigration are eroding a once homogeneous social structure and culture. The core of at least part of United Future’s vote was security of the family as the basic building block of a stable society.

A large segment of the electorate has called for limits to ethnic and familial difference — too large a segment for a Prime Minister wanting a long tenure to dismiss on the numbers. Difference can fragment as well as enhance.

If she ignores this message now, there may come a time, perhaps after the next election, when she must deal with the New Zealand First version of it.

That is not because it will be a majority view but because in post-assembly-line democracies 50%-plus-one is not sufficient as it was when Clark was young. That is the other big message in the election: time is up for the old-Labour numbers game.

Yet watch a Clark election campaign. Strategy and management are highly centralised, tightly held by an inner group working to her dictates.

Look at her new executive: most of her MPs are locked into executive conformity in a web of interlocking responsibilities.

See how she dealt with the Alliance. She left it to Jim Anderton, who whistled his dissidents in behind, old-Labour style. They were an admittedly difficult lot, oppositionist by nature, but he didn’t make it easy for them to convert to the incremental politics he had in mind.

Anderton “won” but lost his party and, in effect, at 1.7%, his place in the grand political scheme. The history of the left is littered with such “wins”.

United Future will need much higher quality wins. Clark turning to the Greens for a bare majority when United Future objects won’t do. Nor will Clark flicking the Greens when they are a nuisance.

Which brings us back to Turia, servant of the whanau.

Turia showed what that can mean by interfering with prison practice. Now she is Community and Voluntary Sector Minister, in charge of lots of lolly for small groups.

Former minister Steve Maharey is aware of the cultural risk and will keep an eye on her; another eye will be kept by their shared parliamentary private secretary, the energetic Tim Barnett, who in the first term did much of Maharey’s donkey work.

Yet Turia is a vital link with Maori. New Zealand First is again positioned second in the Maori electorates, with ambition.

The lesson for Clark is to become a modern manager: listen hard and widely and painstakingly assemble consensus even when she has the numbers and hierarchical authority. Crunching numbers as the great Peter Fraser could do in the 1940s will turn her diverse company fractious and shorten her tenure.

It’s time for new tricks in the parliamentary circus. Clark was a fast learner in her first term. Can she repeat the exercise?