How much more political capital can Labour squander?

Sir Keith Holyoake used to say in the 1960s: “Tell the people, trust the people.” But tell the people what? Statecraft and security set limits.

In fact, the people don’t expect the whole truth — or even necessarily the truth.

Australia is a guide. During the 2004 election campaign John Howard was exposed as having blatantly misled voters in the 2001 campaign. His poll ratings did not flicker.

So here’s a rule of thumb: the people assume politicians are at least some of the time economical and/or imaginative and/or implausible with the truth or just conveniently forgetful. They wearily and warily take that to be part of our intensely adversarial politics.

If that is so, incomplete veracity on its own is not an election disqualifier. Nor are other misdemeanours: for example, Helen Clark’s wild car ride to a rugby test and her credulity-stretching deflection of blame did not materially damage her.

What matters to voters at crunch time is capability — whether a politician or a party can do the job. Howard had proved he could.

So, however exciting David Benson-Pope is to parliamentary opponents and the media, his inadequate demeanour in the face of allegations of aggressive or improper conduct towards pupils is not a disqualifier from office — the more so since the actual alleged aggression or impropriety would not seem to most parents of unruly, tardy, excitable or frightened teenagers to be a sacking offence.

Who among them would care to get the parliamentary glasshouse treatment? Somewhere, sometime they surely have done something they would rather leave in the past.

So Clark’s calculation that she can ride out the revelations, accusations, salacity — and Benson-Pope’s implausible denials — is justified, at least so long as there are no more implausibly denied instalments.

But that is not the whole matter.

The far bigger point is that Benson-Pope’s misdemeanour is one of a growing litany, starring, among others, Lianne Dalziel, Ruth Dyson and John Tamihere besides Clark herself (remember the paintings).

As such a litany lengthens there comes a point when popular excusing of each single misdemeanour develops into unease at the accumulation of misdemeanours. That unease can become an ingredient in doubts whether the government as a whole can do the job. Such doubts are usually fatal at elections.

If, as the record in the first two terms suggests, there will be more misdemeanours this term, Clark’s government may well be nearing that point.

Put another way, the government is running low on political capital.

A government starts with a stock of political capital which it consumes over time. It can build capital in office and the first-term Clark government did by sure-footed “correction” of what voters felt were policy excesses in the 1990s.

But the second-term Clark government consumed rather a lot of political capital through oversights, policy misjudgments, outright errors and misspending.

Among the major items: NCEA implementation, forced school amalgamations, the Ahmed Zaoui farce, the methane levy and the carbon tax — ingredients in a climate change policy now being rethought — the cross-farm waterway access plan, the belated focus on the roading deficit, the slowness to address the electricity crunch, inaccurate telecommunication regulation, bogus or silly “tertiary” education courses and rorts and “social entrepreneur” escapades — and the mishandled 2005 Budget.

These and other failures so dented the government’s reputation as a manager that at election time last year Labour projected only three of the four items in its 2004 “brand” rewrite. “Competent government: strong, sound leadership and effective services” was glossed over.

And the list continues to lengthen: the official outing of Clark’s unethical use of parliamentary funds for material distributed in the campaign and the bumbling public relations around that and Benson-Pope.

Unless Clark gets a grip on her cabinet, it will lengthen more.

It doesn’t help that Clark, whose high personal stock of political capital was a clincher in Labour’s 2005 election win, has been using up her capital digging Benson-Pope out of his hole.

And it doesn’t help that National is building its political capital as it edges centrewards and deepens its policy and political management. Give it another year or two and it will have more than enough to lead a government — and voters will know that.

That puts Clark and Labour in a spot. Capital can be replenished in office, in part by solid successes and in part by the emergence of new stars, as in the 1966-69 Holyoake cabinet.

The cabinet is fixing the second-term failures. And Clark is exuding determination to take charge and try to create a sense of firm direction which might resonate with voters.

But the pickings for new stars are slim. The economy is wobbly. And the failures keep coming.

And this is the third term. Political capital is short. That is Benson-Pope’s real cost to Labour.