Helen Clark and the 'vision thing'. Can this be for real?

The big screen behind Helen Clark on Saturday at Labour’s pre-election “congress” proclaimed: “Taking New Zealand ahead”. But where to?

For an answer, we might turn to Clark’s “vision”. In both her speeches she intoned this golden word. But what is her “vision”? Does she really have one?

The other campaign themes are readily understandable: more Labour-type policy and spending (lots of it), “competence” as a problem-solver and ministers you can “trust” (to do the job — don’t mix political trust with honesty). All wrapped up in feel-good “nationhood”.

But “vision”? As one Labour grandee is wont to observe: “Hitler had one of those and look where it got the world.”

In the past Clark’s feints at “vision” have amounted to lists of policies and things done.

Some in her entourage were uneasy about this managerial earthboundness. They wanted her to chart a way ahead, to tell voters where she wanted to take them and the nation. Instead, in the 2002 election she just promised more of what she had done in her first term.

And in retrospect a warning of sorts against repeating that minimalist line this time might be read into the 10 per cent drop between her pre-campaign polling averages and her election result, not all, or even most, of which could be blamed on the guerrilla warfare waged by her Green “friends” on genetic modification during the campaign.

Then came Orewa I. Clark’s managers had lost sight of the suburbs, which stirred to Don Brash’s one-nation call. After she recovered from that earthquake (one must not call it a tsunami any more) last spring, she began edging closer to talking about “vision”.

She was encouraged by the public response to her Tomb of the Unknown Warrior enterprise. Something one might call a national spirit seemed to be stirring on which she could draw, building on her close association with the high arts and her studious attempts to understand something of the popular arts, all of which have since the late 1970s and especially this decade become increasingly vibrant and nationally distinctive.

So we have heard more from her about “nationhood” in the past few months. We heard it again at the congress. We will hear it in the campaign.

But she is still feeling her way into the notion and her phrasing is far from compelling. Perhaps the ex-Saatchi whizzes doing the party’s advertising will conjure some magic. Meantime, “nationhood” doesn’t yet amount to “vision”.

So, if there is a “vision”, what is it?

One astute foreign observer argued to me at the weekend that in fact Clark has a vision — but in her cautious way has been wary of revealing too much in case she (to use her phrase) frightens the horses.

This vision, my interlocutor asserted, is a local version of the modern Scandinavian welfare state — Sweden and Norway in particular, whose Prime Ministers have recently visited.

Don’t palpitate. If that is where Clark is taking this country, she has a very long road ahead to their stratospheric taxes and government spending and swaddling state assistance and in any case she does not have Norway’s abundant oil and Sweden’s access to the huge, rich European market. She would need many terms and help from the Almighty to make us the Norway of the Pacific.

So if that is her “vision” it is a somewhat dreamy one. Instead, I reckon she operates not to realise a “vision” but by a set of precepts which form a policy compass.

If you want the key words, her leader’s speech gave: “opportunity”, “security”, fairness”, “better public services”.

A new campaign “credit card” yet to be widely distributed spells out “Labour values, Kiwi values”: “fair and inclusive”; “creative and innovative”; “competent government”; “proud of Kiwis”.

You will hear these themes often in coming months. On Saturday she said she would “carry on as we have begun”: “opening up opportunity, encouraging innovation and creativity, building security and promoting New Zealand, our people, our products and services and our country’s achievements and attributes to the world”.

But, tellingly, she also talked of the need to “focus on the next generation of issues”: worker and skills shortages, productivity, work-life balance, higher savings and a spread of asset ownership, linking into Asia, Maori development, the diversifying cultural makeup of the population. (National and ACT by inference are out of date and backwards-looking.)

What does this amount to? A government that is reactive to stimuli — sure, guided by precepts (or “principles”, as Michael Cullen insisted at length in his speech) but not proactive, making things happen, making a nation.

And that is the distinction. The managerial Clark edges down a track defined by her precepts that will take us somewhere but that place is not “envisioned” for us in advance. A visionary Clark would make a nation according to designs she lays out for us.

So when you hear “vision” this election, think precepts. Labour is not — yet — visionary.