Beating third-term-itis — the renewal challenge

Margaret Thatcher once famously said she intended to “go on and on and on”. She didn’t. Before the voters could throw her out, her party did. Having renewed their leadership, the Conservatives went on to win a fourth term.

Helen Clark is seven years into the job and she wants a fourth term badly. Can she get it without renewal? And if with renewal, how is that to be done?

First, set aside any thought Clark will be dumped. She is as in charge as ever and set to lead Labour into the 2008 election.

Moreover, some of her advisers reckon renewal is not needed. Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Queensland Premier Peter Beattie won fourth terms without a lot of renewal. They banked a comfortable economy, a connection with “values” and competence at the job.

This is appealing to a deeply cautious Prime Minister who says her government is based on “values” which (she says) broadly reflect those of the voters (save for a bit too much PC for the provinces in 2005). She is seen as very capable at home and abroad (setting aside gripes with particular policies and occasional lapses). Her cabinet’s misdemeanours pale besides those of Howard’s and Beattie’s. And the economy is still not too bad.

Her advisers add that the buildup of public niggles and annoyance which erode a mature government’s acceptability can be offset by an effective Prime Minister’s accumulation of adherents through networking, gladhanding and doling out of cash.

Clark is effective at that. She attends and speaks at very wide range of events, which brings her in direct contact with large numbers of people of all ages, types and persuasions. Up close, she is not the severe figure of the 6 o’clock news. Her steeltrap memory for myriad facts enables her to give people a sense that she knows them (which in a sense she does) and so she winds into her orbit people who should be her enemies.

She thereby generates for herself a variant of the one-of-usness every truly successful leader in a popular democracy such as ours must exhibit. Clark is not the folksy sort. Still, once a corner-hugger at gatherings, she now works a room as if it is second-nature and consequently has built up a large number of fellow-travellers, many of them self-declared Tories and some of whom vote for her or at least give Labour some campaigning money.

So expect Clark to be, if anything, more out and about over these next two years.

To go with that Clark has ordered up a new communications strategy. If there is one, it has yet to show. The fact that her October conference climate change speech was a surprise told of an absence of skilled communicators who would have got much more air time over a much longer period beforehand and afterwards.

But are people-harvesting and slick communications enough? After the 2005 election Clark’s inner circle talked much about renewal. Clark herself let it be known she wanted MPs to step down so new blood could come in off the list mid-term.

Sir Keith Holyoake set the paradigm for that. After his third win in 1966 Holyoake brought into his cabinet five “young Turks”, as some were already known. They made a public impression and offset just enough third-term-itis for Holyoake to get a fourth term.

Can Clark match that?

She doesn’t have the same wealth of material: of Holyoake’s five newcomers one was eventually Prime Minister, one Deputy Prime Minister and another No 3. Nevertheless, she does have two saleable 40-somethings, David Parker and David Cunliffe, whom she could bring on to her front bench and bustling 40-something Clayton Cosgrove of whom she could make more.

Parker and Cunliffe are in portfolios which could be given high profile. Parker has climate change and energy which Clark in October elevated to a national mission and part of our “unique national identity”. Cunliffe has immigration, which could also be advertised as a definer of national identity.

Clark thereby potentially could project policy renewal along with renewal of personnel and chart a forward path instead of succumbing to the policy staleness that stifles many long-lived governments.

When to bring the new boys up front? Logically before Christmas or early next year. That would give them nearly two years to make a mark (or fail).

Will — can — Clark be so bold? Her habitual supercaution says no. But she badly wants a fourth term.