Today Helen Clark passes a milestone. She becomes the fourth longest-serving Labour Prime Minister, matching Sir Walter Nash’s exact three years in the job from 1957-60.
Clark has already lasted longer as Prime Minister than Mike Moore and Sir Geoffrey Palmer (1980s) and Sir Wallace Rowling and Norman Kirk (1970s). Another 16 months and she will go past the sainted Michael Joseph Savage (four years, three months and 22 days from 1935). This time two years hence she will be about to gazump David Lange (five years, nine days from 1984).
So she is almost certain to reach second place. Then comparisons with Peter Fraser will come dimly into focus. He lasted nine years, eight months and 12 days in the 1940s, so she will need a fourth term to finesse him.
Clark is also fourth-longest leader of the Labour party. Today she will mark nine years and nine days. Fraser went nearly 11 years, Nash 12 years and Harry Holland 17 years from the founding of the party in 1916 till his death in 1933.
Those numbers tell a sad story about Labour. Apart from the Savage-Fraser government’s14 years, Labour’s tenures of office have been brief. Its long-lived leaders have mostly specialised in opposition.
The other side has specialised in government. In the National party Clark would not even be halfway to fourth-longest Prime Minister. Jim Bolger has that slot with seven years in the 1990s.
Clark wants to repaint that picture. She wants her opponents to supply the long-lived opposition leaders and Labour the long-running Prime Ministers.
In the first flush of her election win in July she was already musing to insiders about a fourth term. National’s astonishingly poor vote and United Future’s even more astonishingly good vote gave her the opening.
But to get to a fourth term will require good second and third terms. And, since she can’t count on the right staying fragmented, that will require, pre-eminently, a good economy and a government in tune with broad national values.
The first is to a large extent in foreigners’ hands and, to the extent that it is in this country’s hands, only partly in the hands of the government. Still, there is some reason to believe, if the economic forecasters are right, that the economy will go along nicely enough to give middle New Zealand no compelling reason to switch horses.
The Clark-Cullen economic formula, while unlikely to maximise growth and in some ways constraining it, as business constantly and rightly points out, is not wildly out of whack with reasonable worldwide economic practice.
The second condition of long government is an entirely different sort of challenge. It has always provided the niggle in assessments of Clark’s possible longevity in the job.
Her outburst at the Herald for “beating up” the leaky homes story illustrates it neatly.
First, it shows her propensity to whack people. Whackees are unlikely supporters of her governments. If not restrained, there will eventually be too many whackees.
But more important, the anti-Herald gaffe reflected a failure to grasp how pervasive a core value of this society home ownership is.
She justified her attack by saying only 1000 people had phoned the government’s helpline. But that missed the point.
The point someone more intuitively in tune with core New Zealand values would have picked up is the one Michael Cullen made to me when Labour abandoned the superannuation surtax.
Few Labour-voting pensioners paid the surtax. They didn’t have enough other income to qualify, not being generally large holders of shares, bonds and property. But, Cullen said, they had a fellow-feeling with all old people, including the better off ones who did pay the tax.
Solidarity is at the heart of Labour tradition. Anyone who has been active in a union knows and feels that. Clark, however, did not come up through the union movement.
The leaky home syndrome is likely to have sent a small shiver down all homeowners’ spines. Many have had to hunt leaks, even if not “syndrome” leaks. There but for the grace of…
So Clark’s 1000 is not 1000. It is nearly 1000 times 1000.
Clark’s ideological superstructure is not in tune with suburban values. Her immediate reaction to the Waitara incident two years ago demonstrated that. Likewise her failure to draw lines on the dimensions of biculturalism which are increasingly discomforting suburban folk.
Her operational values are largely those of the liberal left, acquired at university.
But she works assiduously at offsetting that factor, hungrily reading polling and focus group information and travelling tirelessly in the provinces. In that attention to public opinion she resembles Fraser.
Also offsetting her university influence is her childhood on a small farm, where conservative values reigned.
Moreover, her economic settings are in tune with suburban values.
Which Clark has the ball most of the time? The Fraser one. She might therefore get to No 1. But not with too many gaffes of the “leaky homes sort.