Clark: heading for fifth place but is that her limit?

If 2006 was Helen Clark’s annus horribilis, why did she end it so chipper? What does she know that we don’t?

What we know is that Phillip Field’s waywardness and her use of parliamentary funds for her 2005 election pledge card damaged her and her government.

What we know is that John Key freshens and moderates the face of the National party just when her government is ageing.

What we know is that through 2006 her personal poll ratings fell and her party ended the year behind National on the averages.

What does she know?

She knows that once she polled 2 per cent but that she has had seven years as Prime Minister, with nine highly likely.

Next Monday and Wednesday she passes Jim Bolger, then Sir Joseph Ward to become seventh-longest serving Prime Minister. On September 16 she passes Sir Sidney Holland into sixth and on July 24, 2008 eclipses Sir Robert Muldoon to be fifth.

Clark doesn’t do those numbers and they don’t tell us whether she can get the fourth term she is determined on. None of the above did. Muldoon, who once seemed invincible, left office a shell.

But Clark does not have Bolger’s coalition problems or Ward’s decrepitude or Holland’s failing grip or Muldoon’s poisonous physiological and psychological cocktail.

Clark is physically fit. She is careful with food and drink. She looks closer to 47 than her actual near-57.

She has a supportive family and supports her family. She has a tight support group around her. Being top dog is to be alone, a company CEO will tell you. Clark is not alone.

But support groups don’t get a PM a fourth term. Voters do.

What Clark knows on that score is that being around and getting around for seven years has given her contact with large numbers in many walks of life. Some are converts.

She knows the polls are not disastrous for Labour.

She knows she has a political mortgage on “heritage” just as this young nation is beginning to bother about it and to allow itself a little confidence in its high culture and popular culture. Her next project: a heritage park in Wellington by the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

Clark knows that if she can marry a major policy to that emerging sense of identity she might conceivably transcend pocketbook politics. That is what she hinted in her party conference speech in October she might try with climate change.

She knows that Michael Cullen can snooker National on tax cuts next year and that she can bid the bank in the campaign, as in 2005.

And she knows that ministers were told to think about strategy over the holiday and come up with ideas the cabinet can mull over when it reconvenes in a fortnight.

She herself has been, as one insider put it, in listening mode. Clark is not impetuous. She ingests information, then tests it.

That includes testing with the public, as with her pre-Budget characterisation last year of social spending as “investment” (which she subsequently dropped).

But in her caution lies a real disability. Clark is very risk-averse. That has kept her out of a lot of political holes. But it also passes up opportunity.

On her record, therefore, she is unlikely to parlay climate change leadership into a fourth-term-winning icon of national identity. In fact since the conference speech she has said little on it, even when the draft strategies and discussion papers came out in December.

What you get from the Clark government is management, not pointers to the horizon. It’s a very busy government but not a commanding one. Illustrative of that is that this year is slated for “consolidation”.

Managers are mundane and they age — and Clark will not freshen her front bench until incumbents make way. Key is fresh.

Against Key Clark can counterpose competence, knowledge and experience, which she and her cabinet have in truckloads (setting aside prejudices about policy).

But is that enough now? Much went awry in the past two years.

Moreover, if climate change is so big, how come it took seven years, including David Parker’s year, to get to drafts and discussion papers — and still no building code from Clayton Cosgrove to back it up?

If identity is so big, how come there is still no population policy? Population composition is a critical element in identity.

To be sure, incremental change is change that endures. John Howard, going in the opposite direction in Australia, has demonstrated that. Much that Clark has done will endure.

But an under-the-radar style which soothes voters into accepting change offers limited defence against a high-energy challenge from Key.

So can Clark do better than fifth? To pass Peter Fraser and Sir Keith Holyoake into third she needs a full fourth term. Maybe a “consolidation” year can line her up for that. More likely, after her annus horribilis in 2006, she needs an annus mirabilis in 2007.

So will she essay some boldness in her Waitangi Day and Parliament kickoff speeches next month and then carry through? Not on her record — but her place in the pantheon may well hang on it.