What to do in a third term

Sir Keith Holyoake won his third term in 1966 just as the terms of trade turned sour and the economy turned down. He called a nine-month-long national development conference of all economic interest groups to do some “indicative planning” and set 10-year targets. He scraped a fourth term in 1969.

Sir Robert Muldoon scraped a third term in 1981 amid roaring inflation and rising debt driven off a chronic balance of payments deficit. He did have some new policy: during 1981 he concocted a “think big” programme of state-subsidised energy and heavy industrial development.

But “think big” did not rescue the economy. It eventually became a heavy cost on the Exchequer. Meanwhile in 1982 Muldoon gave up on serious long-range economic policy and retreated into a dead-end wage-price-rent-interest freeze.

Jim Bolger won a third term in 1996 only by doing a very detailed deal with Winston Peters which hamstrung his government. Jenny Shipley turfed Bolger out in exasperation but then couldn’t get policy traction running a minority government.

For Labour a third term is novel. It has not had one since 1943-46. Between times it fell into the habit of cramming its programme into a term or two because it couldn’t count on more.

So Helen Clark (assuming she has formed a government by the time you read this — it was written while she was still negotiating) is in largely uncharted territory. What is she to do with an extra three years?

Break that question down into types of activity and policy. Different types predominate at different times in a government’s life and to accommodate differing combinations after elections.

The highest-profile policy type is manifesto law-change commitments, such as Brash’s election promises of lower taxes and abolition of the Maori seats. These are high-energy matters and stir up heated argument, as Labour found when it re-regulated the labour market in 2000 and when it backed civil unions in 2004.

Labour has nothing left in that line. The Greens have plenty, New Zealand First has some, not to mention the Maori party — but they are tails, not the dog.

Of course, there is the completion or continuation of original manifesto commitments. Labour’s second term essentially completed the 1999 manifesto and Clark’s third-term election promises boiled down to continuing down the path she set in the first two terms.

A third term also is a time for correcting the errors and cul-de-sac policy excursions of the first two terms — for example, tertiary education waste and over-accommodation of Maori rights claims and undermonitoring of where funds went — and some errors dating back to pre-1999 but which only came into focus in the second term.

Which amounts, in effect, to the dominant activity for a third term: management.

Managing shocks is the biggest such test. For Clark by far the biggest so far was the foreshore and seabed in 2003-04.

Then there is management of changing circumstances.

Few bothered much about the infrastructure when Clark took office. Six boom years later, roads, energy and water are very high management priorities. Water allocation, pollution and waste are now a major public policy challenge.

Add to that the environment, which over 10 years has metamorphosed from a minority fixation of conservationists to a central economic issue: adapting to climate change, securing the “100% pure” brand on which our tourism trades, preserving fish stocks and much else.

While responses to these sorts of issues might in part be driven by a government’s ideological instincts, they do not become issues in the first place because of ideology but because the world changes around the politicians and their advisers.

Voters change too, as society changes. Education, health, social security and justice systems that worked in the monocultural, nuclear-family society and protected economy of the 1950s won’t work in the individualised, diverse, me-first society and open skill-hungry economy of the 2000s. Since just 1990 the social changes have been dramatic enough to wrongfoot any government, even an alert, flexible and innovative one.

So what’s in a third term? Not “vision”, that overworked, vacuous substitute for strategic thinking. No government can seriously be expected to have new ideas after six years.

But that does not mean the other side’s “new” ideas are better. Nor does it say which side can respond best to changing circumstances.

The challenge is to govern ably. Most voters round the world would settle for that.