Mind the gap. It can be hazardous in politics

Mind the gap, they say on London tube station platforms. It is a good rule for watching politics, too.

There is always a gap between words and actions, in time and in substance. How big the gaps are can decide a government’s lifespan.

Some gaps are intentional, or at least convenient. Politicians can use a dislocation between rhetoric and reality to channel public opinion.

Thus President George Bush’s underlings constructed a fictional edifice of “weapons of mass destruction” to massage Congressional, media, public and world opinion and justify invading Iraq (and, incidentally, get rid of Bush’s father’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein, and get Bush a second term).

There is a downside. That misuse of “intelligence” has caused some who backed the invasion to worry that they should (or could) have been more sceptical, as did a group of senior Australian, United States and British journalists, all still war supporters, at a Melbourne gathering I was at last year.

Most often the gaps are not of the Bush sort. They are the product of over-optimism (creating over-expectations), implementation difficulties, inefficiency, interest group activity or simple public cussedness.

Education Minister Steve Maharey has been backfooted by implementation complications and assertive interest group activity leading up to introducing the “20 hours free” pre-school education promised by predecessor Trevor Mallard last year. He does look now set to get a majority takeup by providers but full buy-in is unlikely until he can fine-tune funding for next year.

Police Minister Annette King has the job of delivering on the promise to Ron Mark of 1000 additional frontline police. But delivering them in a tight employment market has meant letting some recruits start work after failing parts of their exams. Not a good look.

Helen Clark sought long ago to circumnavigate such swamps by swearing she would “underpromise and overdeliver”.

And on her watch large numbers have got better off: profits have been good, employment buoyant, house prices high. Taxes are up, too, but they have bought a lot more health care and schooling and cash for families with children.

But there are gaps between promise and performance.

Maharey is off this week as Research, Science and Technology (RST) Minister to join New Zealand up as the only non-European member of a $100 billion European Union research programme. Linking into foreign programmes and improving RST organisation are plus points on the government’s record.

But, while for seven years the government has talked up RST’s critical importance and even, as Clark did last Thursday when opening a pharmaceuticals plant in Maharey’s city, used words like “expanded” and “improved” to describe its record, its funding of RST has actually fallen as a percentage of GDP, to a derisory 0.55 per cent.

That is well below the OECD average for government funding — quite apart from the even more derisory private sector performance. It undermines Clark’s now discarded promise to get back into the top half of the OECD wealth rankings.

But RST is small beer beside the test Clark has now set herself. As forecast here, she has promised an ill-defined “sustainability” as her overarching policy driver. Does she mean it?

There is both a policy and a political rationale for her manoeuvre: to protect or enhance the clean-green brand in rich markets and potentially make it into a competitive advantage for products, services and tourism; and to take some policy high ground that John Key, needing to tend his party’s special interests, cannot climb on to.

Key will not concede the politics lightly. He will make his first major speech on the environment in March and we should expect him to build on the well-received discussion paper issued in October.

But will Clark also hand Key attack material by not carrying through the lofty tone of her opening day speech to Parliament into a combination of urgency, precise ambition and policies which the public can readily grasp and respond to?

The answer will come after consultation ends in March on the five climate change, energy and land use papers issued in December. To narrow the gap between words and action she will need bold programmes and tight timeframes for implementation. Her announcement of a biofuels target in her opening day speech was two months behind schedule.

If she means it, Clark will need carrots and sticks. Aggressive government procurement, for example, could spawn an energy-efficiency industry with a vested interest in marketing efficiency solutions to hitherto inert households and businesses. Aggressive formation of carbon and methane markets and brand-building could refocus businesses on opportunities instead on costs.

Of course, to be “aggressive” is to dice with risk. Voters in 2008 might judge “sustainability” wrong-headed. But a tepid, hesitant programme is risky, too. It would leave the focus on cost and also leave quick-footed Key a slow-moving target.