How about this time a social "investment" Budget?

The fridge breaks down. Taps leak. The lawnmower is stolen. The roof leaks because the repaint is five years overdue. You can’t get on top of the to-do list.

Welcome to the fifth Labour government midway through its third term. Can this month’s Budget rescue it from its downslide?

Labour shows no sign of getting off the four-and-a-half-year downward trend in its poll averages since late 2002. And that’s also the tone of public discussion.

A consolation for Labour is that it is just possible National might be about to slip off the pace of its four-and-a-half-year uptrend. But National is still, just, in touch with the trend. John Key hasn’t needed a honeymoon — he had that before he became leader. All he has needed to do is keep developing.

And Labour this year has been helping.

How far out of touch did Labour have to be not to realise that, having been caned last year for using taxpayer funds for electioneering in 2005, this of all years is not the year (if ever there is one) to lunge for taxpayer funding of all elections? A long way out of touch.

And why go big on smacking?

Sure, Key has been at risk of parking himself out with the rigid Christians, child-bashers and the nice horsewhipper from Timaru. That doesn’t fit his kinder, gentler underclass champion image. He has had to work to distance himself. Which he has done, with an amendment most ordinary folk would approve.

Helen Clark and Labour, by contrast, have parked themselves offside with the great majority of decent folk.

Homosexual law reform in 1986, prostitution reform in 2003 and civil unions in 2004 were, for regular folk, about someone else — about “them”, not “us”. Tolerance furnished silent majorities for all those initiatives and there has been little agitation for reversals.

Those experiences have encouraged Clark and Labour to believe voters, including their own conservative wage workers, will come round in due course on smacking.

But bringing up kids is not about “them”, about someone else. It is about “us”. Clark and Labour and the Greens have assaulted people in their own homes, in the midst of their families. Banning smacking is not about tolerance of others who are different or do mysterious things with consenting others. It is about the everyday life of everyone who has or has had kids.

The argument that the present law criminalises light smackers, so there is no change in that respect, has been lost in the noise. Of course, over time decent people will realise they are not at risk of prosecution and will approve the whipping of horsewhippers. But there isn’t enough time before the 2008 election for this osmosis to work. It’s a gift to National. You can imagine the billboards.

It comes down to political (mis)management.

Which in turn highlights the Budget. Skilfully managed and presented, the Budget could arrest Labour’s slide.

For that Labour needs a Budget that looks ahead. The 2005 Budget underdelivered on pre-Budget hints and thereby gave National a free hit. The 2006 Budget paid out on the election promises binge.

The 2007 Budget will look forward on climate change. More about that here next week.

But is it enough?

Clark instinctively mistrusts big-picture politics. Silence has followed her setting a goal of carbon neutrality in February. (Norway, meantime, has set a target date of 2050 for carbon neutrality.)

Similarly, her pre-Budget talk last year of an “investment” Budget died fast.

A less conservative Prime Minister might profitably have developed that theme. There is substance underneath it.

As I wrote here some weeks back, there has been a quiet but major redirection of social policy away from a simple rights-based approach — everyone has a right to reasonable housing, education, health care and support in hard times — towards an investment-based approach, which implies taxpayers get a return on their spending.

The problem with this for Labour is that investment, properly understood, builds up measurable capital (social capital, human capital, intellectual capital, health capital, work-capability capital — make up your own social policy terms) on which there is a measurable return. And measurement is — or, at least, might be — at odds with rights, which are usually seen as absolute.

The result is that the public “debate” on welfare is stuck in the 1980s while practice, under Ministry of Social Development chief executive Peter Hughes, has fundamentally changed. Some reckon that change is as big as the 1980s economic paradigm shift.

Can Clark climb aboard Hughes’ bus and perhaps thereby finesse John Key on social policy by being modern and big-picture while he toys with the “underclass”?

Or, to shift portfolios, can she excite voters about another significant policy refocusing, to a future of individualised teaching and learning, still pretty much an education industry secret?

Can she, in short, modernise the welfare state?

Not on her record. It’s too bold. It’s too new-Labour. It’s too 2010s.