A government for a people who look to the government

Who lost us the rugby World Cup? The government, said the lead letter in last Tuesday’s Herald.

Bob Maria said the All Blacks lost the semi-final because the Australian government “promotes and applauds success, whereas [here] the government penalises success and promotes mediocrity”.

So there you have it. It didn’t matter the forwards couldn’t get their own lineout ball. The government did the team in before it got on the paddock.

In fact, governments in this country are not omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent. Any shaping of attitudes they do is limited and constrained by frequent elections. Except for rare outbreaks of radicalism, as in the 1980s, governments reflect this society back to itself. They are a mirror.

And what does that mirror show? Not rugged individualism. That is for other places. Here, as Maria’s letter exemplified, when something needs doing, we look to the government; when something goes wrong, we blame the government. Individual responsibility, even community responsibility, is absolved, or at least diminished, by the government’s assumed pervasive responsibility.

That suits Helen Clark’s government fine. It wants to spread itself wide and deep. In that, it is reflecting back our wish.

The trick then is to get the detail right. And so far it is doing well enough, on current evidence — emphasise current evidence — to be headed for a third term.

Of course, another part of the reason is luck, combined with inheritance: the luck of high commodity prices and a low currency in 2001-02; the bequest by the late 1980s/early 1990s Labour and National governments of a flexible economy, an inheritance Clark and her ministers now affect to disown.

Luck can turn. (Was the semi-final loss an omen?) If Americans stop spending before jobs emerge there in quantity, the nascent world recovery could stall. That could hurt us badly because our households are the world’s most indebted and our private foreign debt stratospheric. We are dangerously exposed.

And an inheritance can be spoiled. Too much re-regulation, of which ministers are increasingly fond, will slow investment. Investment is the lifeblood of economic good times.

So it is conceivable Clark’s fine-spun meringue may yet crumble and a third term vanish.

But right now there is much for Clark to celebrate as next Monday she marks 10 years as Labour leader — fourth-longest after Harry Holland, Sir Walter Nash and Peter Fraser.

But therein lies a sorry Labour tale. Holland’s 17 years were all in opposition, nine of Nash’s 12 were and six of Clark’s 10 have been. She needs to start a third term as Prime Minister to even the score.

Before then (a year from now) she will have eclipsed David Lange as second-longest Labour Prime Minister after Fraser. (She will also have passed Fraser’s 10 years, 10 months as leader.) By contrast, four of National’s six Prime Ministers did more than Lange’s five years.

Go back 10 years. The coup that elevated Clark was messy. Three years later she took Labour to its lowest vote since 1928. Only in 1998, after painful reprogramming, did she begin to look and sound a Prime Minister in the making.

Now she looks and sounds every inch the Prime Minister. It is an astonishing transformation from the gawky policy wonk who in mid-1993, as planning for the post-election coup began, pondered deeply whether she wanted to be locked into politics, leading a bleeding, disoriented party at the edge of minor status, or, at 43, make another career.

Four years into her prime ministership she runs a disciplined, united cabinet. There are disagreements, some tense, and there are wide variations in ideology, from Tariana Turia to John Tamihere. But they hang together.

The cabinet is also competent. Set aside personal opinions about the policies and you see ministers who get the work done and can argue their cases. There are slip-ups and substandard performances but, as cabinets go, it is one of the most able, perhaps the most able in 40 years.

Clark also soaks up feedback and feeds it on to ministers. That modifies Labour instincts and boxes opponents into corners, for instance on Iraq — and maybe the foreshore — or leaves them only with their already converted.

She can be haughtily dismissive, at times verging on arrogant (a banned word in Labour circles). Her government ruthlessly excludes from contracts and dialogue those it classes as enemies. No-go areas are not gone into with lobby groups. But within Labour’s ideological rules she runs a carefully responsive crew.

That sets time limits to left and “politically correct” agendas. The bill legalising single-sex unions in February will be the last of that ilk this term. Next week’s workplace bill will be the unions’ lot this term. Clark moves only as far as at least 45 per cent of voters will go along with. She intends not to let the mirror get out of alignment.

And as for winning? The All Blacks scored three cups, the Wallabies none. What was Maria’s point again?