Seven years versus seven minutes: a matter of style

Leading up to the 2002 election a small voice inside the Prime Minister’s circle argued in vain for an aspirational pitch. It was deemed unnecessary, inappropriate and out of step with voters’ mood.

The economy was up. Voters approved Helen Clark’s “correction” of 1990s policies. The National party was adrift. Steady-as-she-goes was a serviceable message for a reform-weary electorate. Daring or bold policy was out of fashion.

The people were recovering security. The mood was centrist. Those whose memories stretched back to the 1960s could see in Clark’s centrist style reflections of Sir Keith Holyoake’s.

But business as usual is not usual forever. In the second half of his 11 years Holyoake was beset by an economic dip, a values revolution among the young, a divisive military commitment in Vietnam and tensions over rugby with South Africa.

The disturbance of Clark’s peace was the Appeal Court’s foreshore and seabed decision in mid-2003, which enabled Don Brash to get National back into the game. Though he lost much of the ground he made in that surge, National’s long-run trajectory was up. It still is.

And, largely unnoticed by Labour at the time, Labour’s long-run trajectory was down. It still is.

Those trajectories are not inexorable. National can in theory stall and may do if Bill English and John Key don’t get wholly on message or Key relies too much on atmospherics.

Labour can in theory light up a lodestar voters will latch on to and thereby take Labour’s trajectory upwards.

Backbench Labour MPs were buoyed on Budget night. They agreed with Michael Cullen and Helen Clark that it is a “very bold” Budget.

Add in Clark’s “sustainable”, “carbon-neutral” national “brand” and you have glimmers of an aspirational pitch. Hear Helen Clark metaphorically punch the air with a challenge to a business audience to “seize the brand” and the glimmer glows a bit. There might yet be a lodestar.

Except that now, unlike 2002, there is little time. One insider says: “I am now hearing things from Helen that I said to her seven years ago.” Clark comes to decisions slowly — frustratingly slowly for some close to her. That is the way of a safe-pair-of-hands manager.

Key listens, then moves decisively, with closer to seven minutes than seven years between information and decision. A week before his climate change speech senior insiders were sure he was not going to set an emissions trading target. His is the way of a leader with dash.

Clark’s risk is to be thought dull and dismissible. Key’s risk is to be thought incandescent and inconstant.

Key’s pitch is to be the face of the future, making government fresher and more flexible. He has squared off nearly all the policy digressions from the status quo which offended urban liberals. He has humour and accessibility. There is a credible, if tardy, programme of policy development. Now to paint Labour as out-of-puff and out-of-date.

Clark’s pitch, if that is the right word for her shy (but real) passion for 2010s sustainability and heritage peeking out from her conservative 1970s Labour welfare state priorities adjusted for 1980s economic and fiscal realities, is to paint her government as a strategic manager of future risk. She is still well received in the malls, she says. Now to paint National as unready and unreliable.

So, to put it in marketing terms, respect (for Clark) versus attraction (to Key).

Is it too late? The election is now less than 18 months away.

Clark fought the 2005 election not assertively but defending social democratic priorities. It was rerun of 1980s internal Labour wars and 1990s battles against Ruth Richardson and her ideological heirs. Brash was a Richardson flashback, plus innovations from fringe Christians and a brilliant, destructive adman.

The 2005 election came out bang on the trajectories, Labour ahead by 2. The defence succeeded. But then what?

Key is not Brash. He has implicitly bought into big-government conservatism (as John Howard has in Australia) so is seen as no great threat to social services. Unless he self-destructs, which is extremely unlikely, Clark has to fight the 2008 election assertively, promising a future voters can envisage and decide they want.

Is the Budget the start of that, as some in Labour assert?

It certainly looks ahead. If KiwiSaver is to change habits and deepen the capital pool, as Cullen wants, that will take a parliamentary term or two. But some savers will transfer existing savings and anyway saving is essentially conservative. The tax credit for private sector research and development runs the same rerouting risk and otherwise science — our longer-term future — got peanuts yet again.

As for the carbon-neutral “brand”, the Budget added little to earlier announcements.

So Key could safely give rein to atmospherics in response. Voters are edging out of their early 2000s preference for conservative quietude just as he has happened along. It is Clark herself who needs to “seize the brand”.