A milestone for Clark as leader but a big hurdle lies ahead

At next Monday’s cabinet Helen Clark will match the leadership tenure of Labour’s greatest leader, Peter Fraser. Another milestone.

There is one striking difference. Fraser was Prime Minister for all but a year of his 10 years, 252 days as leader. Six years of Clark’s time were in opposition. She is still only third-longest serving Labour Prime Minister behind Fraser and David Lange, having passed Michael Joseph Savage’s four years, five months in April.

Clark will overtake Lange in December but she is unlikely to finesse Fraser. In any case, some close to her expect her to move up to an international job sometime in her third term.

Ah, the third term. Just two years ago, as she was formally reappointed Prime Minister, Clark’s prospects to be the first Labour leader to win three elections looked excellent.

National was adrift (though its real support was nearer its 31 per cent electorate vote than its 21 per cent party vote). She was assured a majority through this term. The economy was schmoozing along. She, a natural conservative, had sussed, it seemed, the electorate’s desire for a moderate, conservative tone in government.

But three sleepers were even then conspiring against a third term:

* A credible eventual National leader-in-waiting had just joined the caucus.

* The credit lines from voters on reform of moral issues were getting stretched.

* Ethnicity was about to become a killer factor.

Recall Clark’s strengths from her first term: serious braininess, clarity, resolve, toughness, a good sense of what this society wanted after the 1980s-90s economic reforms, a willingness to rethink policy when it got some sector or other badly offside, an emerging folksiness which surprised everyone who knew her (herself, too, I think), a remarkable accessibility to the news media which enabled her to set the political agenda. It added up to a formidable competence.

Recall also her weaknesses: an inability to admit wrong, a touchiness about “values”, an incipient arrogance and a reputation for single-handed government, a 1970s social democratic social policy line out of step with a customising age, an inability to grasp the opportunity to paint the big picture of the nation that could be.

And recall her luck: a rare confluence of high commodity prices and a low exchange rate which set up a boom only now easing off. But also recall her ability to make the best of her luck. And recall her good fortune in having a brainy, loyal and formidably adept deputy, Michael Cullen, who glued her government and left her free to travel to connect with voters and the world as chief diplomat.

Now note that Clark the 1970s social democrat has this term driven the legalisation of prostitution — which has the cabinet pondering whether a prostitute might now be a legal prize in a raffle — and civil unions. Generally, voters tolerate such measures but they convert no votes and lose some in the suburbs.

And, bigger than that, she under-rated ethnicity. The social democracy she learnt subsumed ethnicity into class — that is, saw an Maori underclass whose social and economic “gaps” with the mainstream must be closed — and did not see the ethnic dimension of those gaps.

That ethnic dimension is her greatest challenge — culturally and spiritually distinct Maori, seeking parallel status.

This challenge, I wrote after her first year as Prime Minister, is akin to the one the lethal Catholic-Protestant hatred posed to Elizabeth I, with whom Clark shares some attributes. It is a challenge to be the nation-building leader Elizabeth was, to find a way for two cultures in conflict to live in ease.

The challenge was sharpened by the Appeal Court’s foreshore/seabed decision last year which exposed the puzzlement, fear and anger of suburb-dwellers left out of the National/Labour political elite’s revolution in Maori affairs, then by Don Brash’s ruthless exploitation of it.

The crunch issue for Maori, I argued last week, is educational and economic development, on which a new breed of Maori is starting to focus. The culture has been rehabilitated, is vibrant and is starting to re-characterise the mainstream, particularly in popular music — we are set to become a Pacific nation, of a distinct sort. Maori have status now in law and government practice to a degree that a Brash government would find hard to unpick, for all his tough words.

In 59 weeks at most Clark will seek re-election. Her real test, as distinct from the mechanical one of getting re-elected, will be to pull Maori and non-Maori into a coherent political whole after 20 years in which Maori leaders’ focus has been to create two distinct and parallel worlds which are now in increasing tension.

Trevor Mallard insisted last week we are all indigenous now. Charting a path at the end of which that claim becomes a deep and unifying reality, as Elizabeth fashioned an English nation of warring Catholics and Protestants– that will be the measure of Clark the leader.