Is Clark's way the New Zealand way?

Through today’s Speech from the Throne and in speeches over the next few weeks Helen Clark will promote her reading of the “New Zealand way”. She wants that to be your reading of the “New Zealand way” too.

And the longer she stays in office the more time and opportunity she gets to do just that, to make her government “normal”.

That is the nature of the battle for the centre that has been waged since the 1984-92 policy revolution.

Clark’s first term was the most “left” in form her government has been — in coalition with the Alliance and supported on confidence-and-supply by the Greens.

Clark had the numbers to trample over business, which was furious over tax and workplace re-regulation. Instead, she switched tack and told an uncomprehending Labour conference that year that top priority for the rest of the term was the economy.

It was in her second term that, using the Greens for her majorities, she exploited what in different circumstances Sir Roger Douglas called a “window of opportunity” to play to her Labour “identity groups”, to be more “left”.

But she did that only having first reached to her right for her majority, to Peter Dunne and his conservative Christians, who were thereby trapped in the brutal irony of upholding a government while prostitution and gay near-marriages were legalised.

And in her responses to the Appeal Court on the foreshore and seabed and to Don Brash on “race-based funding” Clark was unequivocal: a hurried retreat from “left” ideals to rescue her party’s crumbling support in the suburbs.

Clark understands what too few in her party over the decades have understood: that to do Labour things Labour must be in power and to keep Labour in power she must embed it as the party of the centre.

This is not, as some think, a journey to somewhere out of Labour’s rohe. Nor is this centre-seeking Clark returning to her roots as a daughter of a National household.

The centre in politics is commanded not just by discovery and occupation of some foreign place but by gradual redefinition of the centre’s topography over time, by over time making your way of doing things the base assumption of political argument and design.

And that is done by way of the politics of the possible, not the politics of ideals because New Zealanders, not ideas, set the parameters to the “New Zealand way”. Establishing the “New Zealand way” is a continual iterative process involving the people and their government.

Hence Clark’s short shrift to the Greens when the chips were down and the Maori party wouldn’t play ball. Blokes who play the power game in their companies understand — and some are in awe of — Clark’s tough-mindedness in that.

Now, with Dunne’s and Winston Peters’ cosmetics on the face of her government, she can get on with redefining the centre.

Clark insists the election was a contest of values: that Labour’s “values” beat National’s.

If so, we need to add the word “just”. She won no triumph. The numbers were fine and the critical difference was number of Maori and Pacific islanders stirred out of non-voting by Don Brash’s “race-based” attack.

And there is an alternative, or at least additional, explanation: that the election was an auction and a contest of capability. Labour put up enough in the auction (at your cost and mine) to blunt National’s tax cuts. And there was a sense that National was not quite ready to govern, even though Labour’s own reputation for capability had been badly damaged.

Now Clark has to recover the capability reputation. She also needs firmer identification with the “New Zealand way”. And she has do that in an economic slowdown which might go very sour.

So since the election she has talked of consensus: �I believe we need to be working for a broad national consensus on how we as New Zealanders can own our future and improve our economic performance,” she told the Council of Trade Unions on October 18. She said she would talk with sector groups.

That’s one element of the iterative process. The other is her placing of that consensus that day within the frame of “more fairness, inclusion, opportunity and security” — Labour words, Labour ideals. (National’s are choice, freedom and one-law-for-all.)

In Parliament today the Speech from the Throne will map a programme, with emphasis on the economy. It will not be exciting or flashy or novel.

That is because the centre wants predictability. And Clark wants the centre.

* Rod Donald is dead. We have lost a relentlessly genial and generous man who lived his ideals with determination but without preciousness.

I shall miss his calls at 6am and while he biked between engagements and from wild spots where he was tending some copse of Green adherents. I shall miss the juicy tomatoes from his garden and his advice on organic beers. I shall miss his inventive political marketing, his self-inquiry, his ebullience. I shall miss his intensity of belief and his easy acceptance of my disbelief.

I shall miss him very much.