The gawky, shy misfit who sets Labour records

Mike Moore was Prime Minister for eight and a-half weeks. Helen Clark next June will have been Prime Minister for eight and a-half years.

Moore, of course, went on to an international job far bigger than Prime Minister of a mini-country, so a comparison of his and Clark’s time in office is odious. The same goes for the fact that in Moore’s two elections as leader Labour’s share of the vote dropped both times, the first time by 13 per cent, while in Clark’s four elections there have been two rises and two falls for a net gain of 6 per cent.

And it is time to park in history Moore’s membership of a group of male Labour MPs, including subsequent ACT apostles Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble and sympathiser Michael Bassett, who distrusted and disliked Clark and resisted her advancement in the 1980s. Her longevity in office has been an insult to their judgment.

Next Monday Clark will pass Sir Sidney Holland to become the seventh longest-serving head of government (after Richard Seddon, Bill Massey, Sir Keith Holyoake, Peter Fraser, Edward Stafford and Sir Robert Muldoon). She is set to pass Muldoon next year and could pass Stafford if she delays the election to late October or early November. She is the second longest-serving Labour leader, only three years short of first leader Harry Holland’s 17 years.

Not bad for a gawky, shy misfit. You don’t get to be Prime Minister for three terms by mistake or luck. There has to be something deeper.

There is.

She has brought a coherence to policy. Not in the day-to-day detail, where there are many missteps and muddles, but in the general direction. That National has covered off many of the 2005 differences testifies to that.

So Clark’s “correction” of what she saw as excessive reliance on markets in the 1990s has been by and large accepted in social and economic policy. Clark, once economically illiterate, has learnt enough economics to understand Treasury briefs. She swots hard, is almost always compendiously briefed and adds in a high intelligence and steeltrap memory.

A National government will tweak the rudder again to “correct” what it sees as her excessive reliance on the state, the better to reflect a rising generation’s different preoccupations from those of Clark’s generation. But there will be no wrenching of the tiller.

The same goes for Clark’s reorientation of foreign and defence policy. National’s “geriatric generals”, as one its younger members calls them, have been retired.

There will be differences but no drama upon an eventual change of government. The most likely shift will be a pacification of grumpy old generals in the Pentagon whose anger at Clark counterpoints the otherwise momentous moves by her and the State Department to re-normalise the relationship.

Europhile Clark has also accelerated the long overdue navigation towards a China policy. A White Paper on relations with Asia is due soon.

Clark has deepened the “independence”, “heritage” and “identity” work begun by her peers in the 1970s in the arts: commemorating past battles (this year Passchendaele); marking formal milestones (a day-long symposium noting the centenary of Dominion Day on September 26); turning up at all sorts of high and popular cultural events, including those of migrant minorities; backing small-town museum initiatives.

Clark says she is “proud” to be a New Zealander and has “never wanted to live anywhere else”, an implicit contrast with recent returnee John Key, who lived in London, New York, Singapore and Sydney. (But her logical post-prime-ministerial job is international, recognising foreigners’ high regard for her.)

Like all top dogs, she has flaws and faults, some rather big. She too often sees enemies where she could see potential co-optees. She can’t project and carry through a “vision”. This year was supposed to be the government’s “sustainability” year. There is a lot going on and there will be a stack of announcements through the next three months but it is a behind-scenes strategy, not a national mission (though Germans think it is and have invited her to speak about it in November). She is too cautious for missions. Her feet are of clay, not winged.

That failure to coopt and to enthuse is an ingredient in the current public turnoff. Clark’s government is beset by bad news, tightening household finances, ministerial and administrative slippages and errors of judgment, not least the bizarre Electoral Finance Bill. And, like John Howard, Clark is up against a spunky next-generation opposition leader.

But one senior Nationalist has tried to bet with me she will get her coveted fourth term. She gives every sign of still revelling in the job. She will fight every corner next election. It is not time to write her off.

And even if she loses, there is a fair possibility history will judge her time at the helm to have been among the most substantial. Points are not won in history; they are earned. Clark the slogger and swot has earned a few.