A year at most from the election Labour's spirits are rising

The next Governor-General will be white and male. Why?

Balance, of course after two women and one Maori among the past four. But, more important politically, it will be a conservative gesture from a government seeking re-election no more than a year from now.

First, the government wants to de-fang a potential killer, “political correctness” — that is, being thought to be out of step with majority instincts, too socially liberal or “academic” on law and order and a raft of other social policies and too eager to promote minority interests, such as of republicans, unions, homosexuals and Maoris.

Second, the government wants to re-establish itself as the ascendant small-c conservative party over National. It won that reputation in the first term by smoothing off some of the rough edges of the 1990s. This term it has come close to losing it, having been less reticent in some race, social, workplace and moral policy initiatives and in some of its language.

Mildly reforming small-c conservatism is the big game in our politics. Helen Clark is determined to win that game and thereby stamp Labour as the usual party of government in the way National was for decades in the second half of the twentieth century.

So: (1) put an end to reform by Christmas; (2) talk a bit more blokeishly from time to time (hence John Tamihere has more leash); (3) draw a little of the sting from critics, especially in business; and (4) draw back from anything challenging or unsettling in social, moral and race policy — and even discussion of a new flag.

“Don’t frighten the horses,” is back as a slogan.

So here’s the game plan the Labour caucus will be pondering at its two-day caucus retreat today and tomorrow.

* Clear the big contentious bills before Christmas.

The Workplace Relations Law Reform and Care of Children Bills should pass over the next month.

The Foreshore and Seabed and Aquaculture Reform Bills return from select committee study in November. Once dealt with, the government can begin to shift Treaty policy focus from claims and complaints based on tino rangatiratanga on to economic development (a principle motivator for Maori signing in 1840) at and following the hui taumata in March.

And the Civil Union Bill is to be disposed of one way or the other, probably with help from the Greens with urgency in the clause-by-clause debate. Though the bill is dear to Clark’s heart, if it fails in December she does not intend to revive it before or after the election.

Avoidable controversy is to stop on Christmas Eve. Controversy seldom wins votes but can lose votes.

* Reshuffle the cabinet just before Christmas. There is little scope to bring in new ministers because that requires incumbents to retire unless there is a caucus vote which would be divisive.

The aim instead is to re-energise key ministers by placing them in different portfolios. The electoral effect, the top brass hopes, will be similar to fresh blood.

* Develop a raft of policies to take to the election. Don Brash’s Orewa speech in January shook the party from its self-satisfied slumbers. Some background papers have been circulated. The caucus will discuss some broad outlines.

The aim is new social and business policy, thereby to build a big plank that was missing in the 2002 campaign: a sense of the country Labour wants for us.

Clark’s track record is not one of compelling visions. That has been a source of some minor friction in the inner circles. But she wants to win a lot and if something that looks like vision is needed, she will attempt it.

Another questionmark hangs over selections. The past several elections have given more priority to hacks than high-flyers, to on-message social liberals than mainstream New Zealanders. Saturday’s selection of 45-year-old metal manufacturer Wayne Harpur for Invercargill is a counterfactual.

All this takes place against improving numbers. Labour’s long slide in the polls from an average of 53 per cent in early 2003 to 38 per cent in the autumn has reversed, at least temporarily, to 42 per cent this month.

Failing shocks, the economy looks likely to play positively over the next 12 months where it counts electorally, at the household level. Low unemployment, rising real wages, especially in the state sector and the Budget package feeding into working families’ cash flow should offset rising interest rates.

Treaty issues will still be a negative. But with access to beaches legislated for, some deals done on customary rights and a string of announcements and reannouncements of action to limit “race-based funding”, it should be less a negative than after Orewa.

Law and order is a muted negative thanks to Phil Goff’s line and welfare, health and education do not seem at this stage to harbour much in the way of negatives.

So a year from the election Labour MPs retreat in good spirits. A third term is in prospect again. In the Beehive one can even hear whispers of a fourth term. But that is another story.