There is a point in every government’s life when it gets too big for its boots. That is a prelude for a trip-up.
The point is easy to spot in hindsight, though not often obvious at the time. Governments themselves seldom pick it, to their cost.
One early symptom is a certain restlessness when a supporter or a constituent or a lobby group tries to make a point that runs counter to government policy.
The minister has more information and/or has to balance competing interests, interlocutors will be told — patiently at first but, as the government ages, less patiently, even irritably. There are counterfactuals, fiscal constraints, party ideological commitments or the need to keep onside a coalition partner quiet or voters.
And ministers do know more — until the time comes when they start to fly blind. They have been through it all before, there is nothing new under the sun. They stop listening or their automatic filters operate too well.
Then frustration among the besiegers and beseechers hardens into annoyance, anger or defection. When that stage is reached, the government’s demise is only a matter of time — provided an alternative is at hand.
Examples: National after 1969, Labour after 1987 and National again maybe as early as 1992, only a couple of years into its 1990s stint in office.
In the first two examples, an alternative was ready and the government was sent down at the next election. In the 1990s National was blinded to its own unpopularity by the absence of a compelling alternative until 1998 — and it promptly fell at the next election.
National was absent at the 2002 election and remained so until Don Brash occupied the vacant leadership in late October. His challenge now is to form an alternative government.
For that he has to get National to the point where it can get 61 seats with ACT and maybe United Future — though this would require National to eclipse Labour and counter United Future concerns about Brash’s ACT-like economic and social policy leanings (which New Zealand First shares), so Brash may need to do it with ACT alone. That would require National to get 43 or 44 per cent, double its 2002 result.
Any configuration depending on New Zealand First is likely to be viewed by much of the electorate — remembering New Zealand First’s last time in harness with National in 1996-98 — as improbable or unstable.
Labour has therefore quite a lot of room for manoeuvre.
And that is a potential hazard because it may miss the warning signs of dislocation from the electorate.
Take the maliciously renamed “flatulence tax”. Pete Hodgson had a firm basis for his levy on farm animal methane emissions. Farmers are exempt from tax on their animals’ emissions and, just as big industrial emitters are required to implement world best practice in return for their exemption, farmers should logically pay a little to research mechanisms to reduce animal emissions.
But it did not take into account that farm forests overall absorb more emissions than farm animals emit. And it was bad politics. It could easily be ridiculed and was — round the world.
In the end Hodgson had to save face by agreeing that some research already being paid for by farmers would do instead.
Is he a singular example? Some unions would say no. They think the government is foot-dragging on its workplace and social agenda, too scrooge-like with its money and too attentive to business.
Some in business would say no, too. They feel the government doesn’t listen to reasonable arguments it could take on board because it resents business’s pleas for lower taxes and lighter regulation.
Green lobbies, indulged in the first term and over transport, would say no, too. A poster campaign against genetic modification launched in October accused Helen Clark of not listening.
There are stirrings among suburban battlers over the PC agenda (smoking in bars, gay marriage and so on).
So, four years in and there are some warning signs of hubris.
You can hear the ministers’ riposte without it being articulated: Clark tirelessly travels the country, using it as (in her words) a giant focus group. Economic, social and foreign policy is in tune with middle New Zealand. It is Brash, dragging National towards ACT, who doesn’t listen.
Is that riposte right? For the most part, yes, still. But whether it will be in 12 months will be an acid test for Clark’s government.