How to test whether the PM really backs transformation

So one party can’t count its election spending and the other thinks it’s OK to use your money to tell you what a fine lot it is, even at election time. Those are great character references for our two main parties.

National and Labour need to clean up their electoral acts and Parliament needs to clean up the Electoral Act. A day in court for both big old parties might be helpful in that and cleansing for our democracy.

Meantime, the election result stands. That’s the constitution. We’re supposed to move on.

So what do we get on with? Economic transformation, Helen Clark is telling us — and telling Parliament, back in session (plus “family” and nation-building). Economic decline and missed opportunities, Don Brash is telling us.

Brash’s remedy for the recession he divines from the business confidence tea leaves is well rehearsed: lower tax rates, lighter regulation, less government spending and fewer on welfare. Otherwise, his Orewa speech two weeks back told us, his line is a populist litany of government failures past and present which, the more he recites it, the more he sounds oppositionist and the less he sounds the man with a high moral mission.

Clark tosses off the business pessimism as withdrawal from boom profits. Of course, profits will be lower as the business cycle cycles down — to a trough which will still be comparable with good years in times past, she says.

That’s the ritual rhetoric. But both Brash and Clark know that will not get Clark a fourth term.

She scraped through last September on the boom. But in 2008 the economy will have been lifting from its trough for at most a year — not long enough to generate voter gratitude and goodwill, as Sir Robert Muldoon found in 1978 and Jenny Shipley in 1999.

So Clark needs something more to take to voters next time.

Which means a different third term. She can no longer get away with “correcting the failed policies of the 1990s”, especially after her own cabinet’s stumbles and errors in its second term.

This is especially so since some of her first-term “corrections” — notably telecommunications and electricity regulation — are having to be readdressed. So is climate change policy. Clark herself took a swipe on telecoms broadband last week. Expect tough talk when Transit New Zealand says cost rises and limited competition for tenders are pushing out the road programme.

There is evidence Clark has grasped the need for a different government this term if she is to get a fourth term and give it substance. That recognition has been at the heart of front bench pow-wows with select, small groups of private sector and public sector chief executives. She needs ideas for a three-year project that points out 10 years — that is, gives voters something to vote for when more of the same won’t do.

There were dark, and not so dark, hints around Wellington inner-circle traps last week of a “different” prime ministerial speech today [Tuesday] setting out the government’s intentions for the year and a “different” budget in May (another version was “chaos”, because slow government formation delayed its start, and a third was “it’s all been spent on hip operations, student loans and Working for Families”).

There are even conflicting hints as to whether the tax changes might extend to rates.

Clark, the word is, is taking charge.

It may seem odd to say that about the woman who used to rule “Helengrad”: self-disciplined, riding subordinate ministers and staff hard and icily unsentimental about those who fail or falter.

But the second-term drift and mistakes have crumbled Helengrad’s ramparts. If Clark is to command votes in 2008 she needs now to command policy — to be proactive, not just reactive. A reactive cabinet would be hostage to the re-energised opposition National has become.

But can Clark make the switch from incrementalist to long-term project manager?

Here’s one test against which to measure her prime ministerial speech.

The government vaunts its “growth and innovation framework” as its guide to economic transformation. It has talked a lot about lifting productivity growth, which has a number of ingredients (savings, investment, infrastructure, workplace practice, etc). Among those ingredients is research, science and technology (RS&T) spending on which has barely moved as a percentage of GDP in Clark’s six years.

Our export cash-flow industries, the pastoral industries, are running low on new science needed to keep their competitive advantage and specialist scientists (for example, in taxonomy) needed to ward off bio-sabotage.

We also need unique RS&T to preserve the clean-green image which is critical to our biggest foreign exchange earner, tourism.

Such spending, of course, won’t make a visible difference by 2008. But if Clark were serious about taking charge and fashioning a long-term project which can coopt the country (and voters), she would dramatically lift the government’s RS&T performance this term.

It’s your future. Test her on it.