This is the year the government has to recover its reputation for competence. If it fails, it is probably dogmeat at the next election.
The government limped into Christmas with two ball-and-chains around its ankles. Television New Zealand was in disarray because of its government-set, impossible hybrid commercial/public service objective. David Benson-Pope had made mistake after mistake and the ninth floor had not got protective wrapping around him.
And a large questionmark hung over the peculiar arrangement with Winston Peters. Media coverage of his first two months damaged not just him but Helen Clark and he was easy meat for National MPs demonstrating he did not know what was in his department’s post-election briefing. This was not a good start to Clark’s third term.
Add in the gathering economic slowdown: rising interest rates, rising inflation and slowing employment will bite households this year.
That will fog up voters’ glasses and make it harder for Clark to get them to see a brighter picture of the government in action this year than last. “Why didn’t they do something?” will be the refrain.
National squeezed back for a fourth term in 1969, inflation took off, a huge petition forced a scale-down of the Manapouri power project, then a leadership struggle and change, all suggesting a government that had lost command.
National squeezed back for a third term in 1981, all the indicators turned worse, Sir Robert Muldoon tried to fix them by regulation, fired a minister, lost a vote in Parliament and lost command. The erstwhile strong man slid to a landslide loss in 1984.
In 1996 National squeezed back into a shaky (third-term) coalition with the same man in whose aptitude and application Clark has now invested. There followed a leadership struggle and change, a recession, a string of minor scandals and a slide in confidence. National lost in 1999 by what under the FPP system would have been a landslide.
That is the spectre ahead in Clark’s third term. Unless her cabinet lifts its act from 2005, her government will be a walking corpse by the end of 2006, as were the governments by the end of 1970, 1982 and 1997.
Well, not so much a walking corpse as the undead. Ministers and bureaucrats can go on doing things long after the public has written a government off, even if they cannot get much legislation through Parliament.
But sliding to oblivion is not how Clark wants to end her prime ministerial days. She wants a fourth term.
In her favour is that ministers began during the second term to fix the embarrassments and mistakes of that term and that should begin to show this term.
The list includes shonky “tertiary” education courses, now largely closed, and the runaway Waananga of Aotearoa, “race-based funding”, the NCEA marking shambles and 111 calls, all under intensive care. A repeat of Trevor Mallard’s politically inept forced school amalgamation is most unlikely.
The Child, Youth and Family Service’s systems, morale and staff have greatly improved. There will still be horror stories but probably no longer a sense that the service has failed.
The welfare focus has been gradually tightening on to getting beneficiaries into work, softening that sore spot. Tougher penalties, more prisons, more police and falling crime numbers should take the edge off law and order. Tax threshold indexation should slightly ease the tax irritant.
And a start has been made plugging the huge hole in the roads system left by 1990s underfunding and the 2000s economic boom economy.
That is all promising.
But on the other side of the ledger a hole might develop in the electricity system before transmission and generating capacity improve.
And there remains a big list of things to fix: tertiary education rationalisation, “elective” surgery, immigration and population policy, business and NGO compliance costs, the resource management system, Maori organisations’ capability. Add your own.
Then factor in another crop of the unexpected and untoward which will test ministers’ reaction times and management skills — a tougher test this term because there won’t be oodles of cash to buy off difficulties.
And finally, ministers show no sign the flow of misdemeanours and personal mistakes will stop. Clark compounded her first-term Peter Doone and painting signing indiscretions by too fast a convoy for too small a reason. Lianne Dalziel, Ruth Dyson, John Tamihere and Benson-Pope are a partial list of other trouble-hit ministers.
Can Clark recover “competence” against that tide? That is her biggest test to date.