National's 'new-conservatives' and Brash the corporate boss

You don’t hear much of Helengrad these days. Instead, the sniggers are likely to be about The Don. The Soviet allusion has given way to the Sicilian: get in line or you’re topped.

Katherine Rich did not just lose her portfolio. She plunged in rank. Don Brash was exacting retribution.

In her early years in government Helen Clark micro-managed. Very few ministers had cabinet experience and she said they needed guidance if the government was to function well.

She still drops into portfolios from time to time. But nowadays it is from a helicopter patrolling above the fray, not from an armoured staff car on the battlefield. Most of the fixit work is left to Michael Cullen.

Clark has a formidable grasp of policy, acquired over 25 years in Parliament. That now extends to the economy, once her blind spot. She no longer just parrots what Cullen tells her.

She vacuums up information on her weekly travels, which span a wide range of activities in the country (and beyond). She treats the country as a huge focus group.

And she stashes what she learns in an encyclopaedic memory. She rings her ministers on one of her two cellphones to pass on complaints and suggestions. She works closely with them. She is exceptionally well briefed. Her many media interviews show that.

The result is the smoothest-running government in my 35 years observing them. There are casualties, upsets, mistakes, messes and tensions, of course, but they are fewer than in other governments.

Brash comes from the corporate world, with a very narrow policy background. In that world the boss decrees and subordinates jump.

Not many in the corporate world comprehend politics. They cannot understand why a government is not run the way they run their companies.

One reason why not is that political parties are voluntary organisations of strong-willed individuals with varying views. This makes parties essentially collectives, not command hierarchies.

A second reason is that governments deal with far more complex matters than companies and must manage issues, interest groups, the media and voters in a fishbowl. Effective policy is not made by nifty slogans, scratching itches or driving wedges. That was what Rich found in welfare and Brash has yet to find.

I had intended this column to look forward, to canvass some National policy as it is coming together. Judith Collins had got health policy pretty much ready by late January, she said. John Key is to embark on a series of major economic positioning speeches.

But Collins is not health spokeswoman any more. She is suddenly welfare spokeswoman and Rich is a discard. National is in pain again — all for a sound bite to get a lift in the polls, which will likely prove transitory if it eventuates (so far the average has scarcely budged).

Brash reconnected National with its core vote last year. National’s task this year is to convert voters from Labour. For that it needs well-researched and well-aimed centrist policies, presented with the authority and sincerity Brash at his best projects.

If National goes too far right and exposes Brash the hardline ACT man it probably just cements support he has already won for it. His DPB and adoption line is probably in this sphere.

The Labour party knows this syndrome well in reverse. It spent three decades squashed too far left by astute centrist National governments.

Rich is one of a quartet of “new-conservative” MPs under 45 who have been defining a National party which can contest the centre with Labour: right of centre, of course, but with the accent on the “centre”. (Collins, too, on matters other than the family, is of this ilk.)

This group has been shaping up to form a strong National front bench by 2006-07: fresh and talented and a contrast to Clark’s same old faces.

Clark reshuffled her cabinet in December but did not refresh it. Contrast Sir Keith Holyoake, the most successful Prime Minister in the second half of last century, who promoted a raft of “young turks” to enliven his cabinet in 1966 halfway through his stint.

Clark is near bereft of “young turks”. If she gets a third term, her cabinet is going to look long-ish in the tooth.

So if National were to think strategically it would promote a “new-conservative” policy line and the “new-conservative” MPs like Rich (and Key, chief whip Simon Power and former leader Bill English).

Instead, the message Brash sent from the eminently avoidable aftermath of the Orewa speech (he didn�t’ have to reinsert excisions made at Rich’s request) is that National is not centrist. Rich the centrist is banished.

Rich is tough, thoughtful, hard-working and a media darling. She could have been a campaign star. To star her instead as an outcast was bad politics and poor management.

Perhaps we are seeing another real Don Brash — the merchant bank and Reserve Bank boss whose word was gospel. That Brash does not yet have the policy grasp or political management skills to be Prime Minister.

He’d better learn fast.