A cabinet of friends, glued by a skilful and able deputy

The political silly season arrived prematurely last week: a newsreader’s salary was deemed a national emergency. We are a small country. We fluster about small things.

When I say “we”, I include the Prime Minister. The guardian of our national interest at home and abroad stooped to conquer a flea.

Undignified and inappropriate, yes. But not unusual among the longest-lasting Prime Ministers of our past. Long-lasting leaders take no prisoners.

And Clark is within cannon shot of joining that elite. On Thursday she will sail past David Lange’s five years and 13 days to become Labour’s second-longest Prime Minister behind Peter Fraser and tenth-longest overall. Next June she makes ninth. A full third term would take her to fifth, past four conservative Prime Ministers, and a full fourth term to third.

She has long been expected to move on to a career as head of some big international organisation. But now just coming into distant view as she winds up for next year’s election is an alternative: a secure place in this country’s history.

Sure, she has had luck. But in February, when the Don Brash tsunami hit, it was not luck she needed but good management — which she delivered. The way she battled back to go into Christmas confident and in-command demonstrated her formidable competence in the job. She is the ablest Prime Minister since Sir Keith Holyoake.

So she goes into Christmas confident and in-command and recognised with a high poll rating.

Yet once she rated 2 per cent as preferred Prime Minister. Brash has cited this to claim he is still in the race. But his wooden attempt on Friday in Parliament to depict a Prime Minister who has had a bad year was deservedly hooted down in derision. It is Brash, the political, policy and historiological novice, who has had the fading year. Increasingly, his fast-rising finance sidekick, John Key, adept, centrist and personable, has been eclipsing him as National’s definer.

Labour under Clark has begun to look as if it might succeed in redefining the centre on its terms. Even more remarkable is a sign or two now that it might be on her watch that a sense of nationhood takes root in this fractious society.

Of course, she had some helpers this year. I shall single out three.

Dail Jones, once National and now New Zealand First, rescued the Foreshore and Seabed Bill and made it better. He showed the best face of small-party politics, delivering constructive compromise.

Most people should find the foreshore deal works. An exception is Tariana Turia, marching backwards into a mystical future. The indigenous rights push is over for this generation: the foreshore barney made that clear. Her party may win seats in the next Parliament but its quest is misjudged.

Clark’s second special (but under-acknowledged) helper was Tim Barnett, crucial to getting her cherished Civil Union Bill passed.

Third special helper was new boy David Benson-Pope. Once the fixer on the Dunedin City Council, he is now a cabinet fixer: aquaculture reform, civil unions, a Resource Management Act revamp. It may not be done prettily, for Benson-Pope, though urbane enough to be a dedicated art collector, does not overindulge in politeness. But it is done expeditiously and unflappably.

Of course, it helps him and all ministers that this is a united cabinet.

Nowhere was this more evident than at Steve Maharey wife Liz’s funeral midyear. Nearly all cabinet ministers attended and they gathered as friends — not just political friends but personal friends.

That friendship is the unseen glue in this government.

Sure, there are tensions and spats. Maharey is a bit too theoretical for some, Trevor Mallard too rough-tongued for others, Margaret Wilson too ideological for yet others and there is the odd outsider, such as the now segregated John Tamihere.

But the great majority like each other, have grown up in politics together, broadly share an outlook. They get on better than any cabinet I have watched up close. They meld.

That makes the cabinet a tough opponent for the squabbling sloganeers on the other side.

And the glue in this bunch is the most able deputy since Sir John Marshall in the Holyoake era.

Clark’s deputy doesn’t want her job though he could do it easily. In a highly effective division of labour, he handles the detail of cabinet, Parliament and coalition management while she (with some lapses) helicopters over the big picture.

He is very funny (often at others’ expense, as I can attest). He can also be kindly. He is brilliantly intelligent, intellectually subtle, able to master all arguments.

So, besides managing the nation’s finances, he gets the biggest and knottiest matters to sort out. None comes bigger than the foreshore: ministers talk almost with awe of his patience in picking a path through a thicket of conflicting legalities, claims and ethnic sensitivities (British and Maori) which disturbed the foundations of the nation’s sense of itself.

This year was Michael Cullen’s.