Clark's cabinet and its missing "competence" tag

I idly bounced a tennis ball Thomas’s way the other day. Thomas caught and held it in his mouth. Interesting. Thomas is a cat.

So it can be done.

Whether it was done 23 years ago is not a matter of great political moment. That was teaching then, as other teachers on both sides of the House could attest. Had David Benson-Pope said in May what he now says — that he can’t recall any such incident — it would have blown over with the police report.

But Benson-Pope is too proud. He “refuted” Rodney Hide’s allegation and so snared himself. The tennis ball tag will dog him for life.

Then showing the Minister of Silly Walks round Parliament when the police report surfaced instead of fronting in the House to take his medicine, then playing ill-considered games with the media through his press secretary and putting out a easily falsifiable press statement are not marks of a fine minister.

Stir in the failure of the ninth floor micro-managers, who used to get George Hawkins out of the firing line and swaddle vulnerable ministers, to prepare Benson-Pope in advance in May to deal with Hide’s well-telegraphed allegation and then in November to ensure he didn’t dig himself deeper in over the police report.

That is a failure of competence. Which is the real political point about the tennis ball.

Benson-Pope rose fast to the cabinet because he impressed the Prime Minister he could make decisions and get things done. She needs able project managers.

And last year when Labour, under Steve Maharey, re-examined its “brand”, “competent government” was one of four defining “Labour values — Kiwi values”. The others were “fair and inclusive”, “creative and innovative” and “proud of Kiwis”. They were printed on a “Labour delivers” credit card which was, in the event, not widely distributed.

“Competent government” was elaborated on the card as: “Strong, sound leadership and effective services.”

That was before Trevor Mallard closed down lots of schools and stirred the wrath of multitudes of parents, before his NCEA debacle, before the return of the Doone affair to dog Helen Clark, Winston Peters’ outing of an Iraqi minister, troubles with 111 calls and the public relations disaster over personal tax in the Budget. Benson-Pope’s “I refute” stumble was one of that litany of lapses.

As a result, by June the opposition parties had subtracted “competent” from Labour’s lexicon. “Strong, sound leadership” rang hollow. National scooted way ahead in the polls.

Labour’s good fortune was to have a fallback. Polls accorded Clark more credibility and authority than Don Brash. Most government leaders would die for her approval, competence and preferred prime minister ratings. And leaders count for a lot in election campaigns.

National’s billboard campaign underlined that by implication: a smiling Brash was contrasted with a bemused and/or grumpy-looking Clark — that is, a Clark anything but in charge, or, if in charge, in charge in ways the “mainstream” would surely not approve.

Quantitative polls are a crude measure. But focus groups told Labour the same story, that Clark was a big asset — respected for strength and ability even by those who don’t like her and/or her policies.

Maharey confirmed Labour’s high valuation of Clark to a Victoria University conference on the election on December 2 (where New Zealand first staffer Damian Edwards spilled the beans on strategic differences within that party). In a close-run election, Labour thought Clark was critical to the win and she almost certainly was.

Three years from now that poses a campaign issue for Labour. If there are doubts Clark will stick around through a fourth term, her value as a campaign plus might be discounted by some voters.

But that is three years away. Long before then she has a needs to re-affix the “competent” tag to her cabinet it lost in May.

Once voters conclude a government has lost its grip, or is plain incompetent, that is the end of it. That is why there was nothing Jenny Shipley could do to save National in her short reign.

There are two dimensions.

One is the third item in Labour’s credit card definition: “effective services”.

On that the government probably overall got an “achieved” (to use NCEA parlance) from voters, judging by the fact that 97,100 more voted for Labour than in 2005: marked down on education and tax, but with credits on health and the economy.

The big challenge now is to convince voters during an economic slowdown/recession that it still deserves good grades. The tint of voters’ spectacles changes when jobs go scarce, inflation rises and interest rates climb. “Achieved” can quickly turn to “not achieved”. Polls go sour.

The other dimension is a perception (valid up till 2004) that ministers are on top of their jobs — that a fair number deserve a “merit” and a sprinkling an “excellence”.

On that count Benson-Pope these past 10 days has scored a “not achieved” and has not been a good boy in class. Anyone got a tennis ball?