The end of a transition — and another just beginning? There will be a large absence and a brooding presence at Labour’s pre-election congress this coming weekend.
The absence will be Jonathan Hunt. For 40 years he has been a feature and a fixture, jovial and kindly to all, the very soul of loyalty to the social democratic cause under the strain of tough economics and tougher politics. He has been one of Helen Clark’s innermost confidants.
I first knew him as a bumptious new backbencher in 1969. Then Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake, who didn’t have many soft spots, had one for him.
His personal triumph was his Adult Adoption Information Act in 1985 which gave corporeality to the ghosts in the personal histories of many thousands. As a 1980s minister he kept his portfolios tidy in turbulent times, which many ministers don�t manage in temperate times.
He was known colloquially as Minister of Wine and Cheese. West Auckland winegrowers were among his constituents and he championed their aspirations. He relished good food. It showed rather too much in recent years.
Unmarried, Hunt’s greatest love was Parliament itself. To be Speaker was a calling, not a post or a job. Save for some lapses — most notably a bad call on Harry Duynhoven’s dual citizenship — he presided with humour, some humility and a precise grasp of the rules. If anything, he was too generous. It is a forgivable fault, to which he succumbed also in his daily living.
Hunt signs off on Thursday to go to London. Had he been at the congress, he would have had a warm sendoff. He is much loved in the party.
His going marks the end of a great transition — and the looming of another transition.
In the mid-1960s this was a steady-state society. Hunt’s generation challenged that: British homogeneity, the American alliance, the nuclear family, the regulation of private life, security.
Over the next 20-30 years they and those a decade or so younger in many fields (among them in politics the Helen Clarks, Richard Prebbles and Ruth Richardsons) tore up the code and fashioned a nascent nation in thought and action, greatly less regulated. They also made that new nation less culturally, socially and economically secure.
Clark’s quest has been to restore some of that lost security and to extend it to outsiders — Maori and gays, among others — by new law and practices and human rights guarantees. Her Labour party would be unrecognisable to the young Hunt’s ossified boss-run cabal.
Clark’s party will this weekend bask in strong ratings. It will confidently (but not too confidently, the top table will admonish it) plot its return to power in September — or July if Clark gets spooked.
The spook is the brooding presence at the congress, counterpoint to Hunt’s large absence.
Economic and social confidence look to be peaking. From here it is downhill. The declination should be gentle and leave voters still unruffled on a September polling day. But if the incline steepens, bet on a winter election.
Why is it downhill from here?
Because we are heading into a turbulence that will test Labour in its third term (or Don Brash in his first, if the ball bounces his way and he can catch it).
House prices will stop going up. They might, if things go awry, plunge. And, unlike in past downturns, inflation won’t rescue those who have overpaid and/or overborrowed.
So household balance sheets will need rebuilding: the Reserve Bank picks household assets to fall by a sixth as a multiple of household income. Spending will have to slow in the next parliamentary term.
And that will be made worse if the export price boom ends because the international economy slows under the impact of soaring oil prices and/or the unravelling of George Bush’s towering trade and fiscal deficits. Add to that an initial cut in the standard of living here if the exchange rate plunges because foreign lenders reckon an external current account deficit heading towards 8 per cent of GDP makes us too risky or if world interest rates become more competitive.
So profits will ease. Employment will slow. The lift in wages just under way will reverse sometime next parliamentary term.
In short, Clark’s economic lucky run is ending.
She has with justice protested her cabinet has had its share of big shocks in its first two terms — September 11 and the foreshore/seabed bombshell were just two — and rose to the occasions.
But if re-elected, the cabinet, now ageing in office and without fresh new star talent because the back benches are thin, will have to measure up to an economic crunch and still hold voter loyalty.
Quite possibly it can. But, run by 1970s statist social democrats, it is ill-equipped to deal with a darker presence in the shadows of this weekend’s congress: a future post-revolutionary voter majority which presumes and expects more diversity and choice.
For Hunt watching from an imperial distance this would have been one transition too many for him. Can Clark adjust to such a generational shift? Holyoake could not in the 1960s.