Might it be National that beds in conservative rule after all?

Let’s dispose of a red herring. A Maori party would not have won the foreshore/seabed battle for iwi and hapu.

Why not? It would have much more loudly represented tribal Maori views than Labour’s Maori MPs. Wouldn’t that have been a good thing?

Yes, as a vent. But a Labour-led government freed of the need to balance Maori interests against majority interests and deprived of the Maori vote would probably have bulldozed through much less friendly legislation.

Might not Labour have been dependent on the Maori party and so balanced the interests anyway? Just possibly in this instance. But a Maori party which leveraged the balance of power too often and on big issues would intensify calls to abolish the Maori seats. The alternative base for a Maori party, the party vote, would be much less definable and organisable.

Moreover a separate party would make Maori distinct in the political system and a visible irritant at the seat of power. In the current atmosphere of mistrust that would have been inflammatory. The health of the nation requires cool heads and cool actions. Recently there has been much of the alternative.

Why is that? Because the treaty part of the 1980s revolution has rolled on long after the rest stopped and in direct contradiction of the public wish for consolidation and moderation.

Helen Clark’s success until January rested to an important degree on her moderation of the 1980s-90s reforms. It was a matter of tone rather than policy. She furnished the consolidation a revolution-weary public had sought in several elections.

She was mirroring what National did after Labour built the highly regulated welfare state between 1935 and 1949. National moderated the policies a little, practised consolidation and set itself up to dominate the second half of the twentieth century.

If Labour could emulate that in reverse after the 1980s-90s deregulation, there was a prospect it could set itself up to dominate politics in the early twenty-first century.

The trick in each case was a government conservative in tone and at most mildly reforming.

So since 1998 the big game in our politics has been whether Labour or National would provide that conservative tone.

National’s weakness under Bill English, who understood well the nature of the big game but couldn’t play it, left the field open to Labour. Clark, who hails from a conservative farming background and is cautious by nature, took her chance.

Sure, she made substantial changes in workplace policy and passed social/moral laws such as the Prostitution Reform Act. There was also a bit much political correctness for middle New Zealand. But overall she provided the desired settling-down tone — and the rise of Don Brash, an economic hardliner, to be National’s leader seemed to leave her unchallenged.

Except for the Treaty. Treaty policy rolled on. The Treaty revolution — and if you doubt it is a revolution, think back to the treaty’s near-invisibility 20 years ago and wonder at the huge changes since — continued.

And the Treaty goes to the heart of national and cultural identity. The 1980s revolution was at least as much about expressing, through the high arts and popular culture, an identity distinct from the British colonial heritage, as it was about deregulation. The 1980s were our independence revolution, which helps explain why the policy changes went so much deeper and broader than in other comparable countries at that time.

So for a critical part of the revolution Clark did not provide the check, the moderation and the consolidation the public wanted.

Enter Brash. When he became leader he stated two vital challenges: economic growth; and, equally large in his mind, “the deterioration of race relations” between Maori and non-Maori, on both sides of which he saw “huge resentments”. “I think that has a huge potential to damage us, if we don’t get it right.”

On the economy Brash is radical, though his party may be moderating that somewhat. But on the Treaty he, not Clark, provides the moderating, consolidating gestures middle New Zealand wants.

So the battle between Labour and National to assume dominance based on mildly reforming conservative-toned government is at last joined.

Who will win?

It is too early to tell. Clark is no radical on treaty issues. It is possible she might gradually recast Labour as moderate on the Treaty and claim precedence there, too, as mildly reforming but conservative in tone. She might ease the cultural insecurity large numbers feel, just as she has eased the economic and social insecurity large numbers felt after the 1990s.

If she does, she will likely get a third term.

But if Brash holds the ground he has now taken in middle New Zealand and if his economic radicalism is softened, he might pip her or at least queer her pitch, make a third term unworkable even if he can’t make a workable government himself.

Then Clark would be a footnote — leader of yet another ephemeral Labour government. That’s her challenge.