Helen Clark has a year at most to repair the damage. That means, first off, four months to get the poll gap with National safely into single figures.
Her party, conferencing this month, is not in a mood to go out of office next year, either through exasperation with its cabinet or weariness. The party has members and money and a pleasure in power, even if “radical” has given way to “incremental”.
Between my writing and your reading this Clark was pondering when and how to act (or half-act or not act) on a matter that dogs any long-lived government: the promotion of younger cabinet ministers to senior rank to prove capacity for renewal and fresh thinking.
There will also have been more announcements and discussion papers on her central theme of sustainability.
That theme came out of her keynote speech at last year’s conference when she first mused on this country being a climate change leader. At the time there was a public buzz in the wake of Al Gore’s missionary visit and film. Her conference keynote chimed with the media and the public.
Then nothing. Until her annual statement to Parliament in February when she mused on becoming “carbon neutral”. Then nothing for months.
In between behind the scenes the cabinet’s branding team decided this was to be the year of sustainability, a theme it thought National could not appropriate but the public could be led to — or, even better, might itself take the lead.
In theory this would slip into the public’s subconscious a sense that Labour was future-geared and merited a fourth term.
But a brand requires heavy promotion. And “sustainable” implies “continuous”.
The brand was not continuously promoted. It did turn up shortly before the Budget in an ambitious timetable for a greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme (still in “framework” form) and sporadically at other times. But the government spent most of its year shuffling between mistakes and accidents.
That gave John Key a dream ride for his first year as National leader. He is positioned very nicely for election year.
Except that he is far from a complete Prime Minister-in-waiting.
* Michael Cullen has had grim fun for much of the year pointing out discrepancies between Key’s statements on the economy, taxes and government spending and those of shadow finance minister Bill English.
* Other ministers, particularly No 4 Steve Maharey, have had similar grim fun with discrepancies between other shadow ministers and Key, notably on heath, education and welfare.
* Key himself made off-the-cuff comments in late September which gave ministers scope to brandish the P (for privatisation) word and to contrast that with Key’s calculated attempt to neutralise differences with Labour which might rebound on National among the centrist voters National needs to win to take power.
Key has struggled to ingest the voluminous information he needs to establish himself as Clark’s successor — or even understudy. He has a year to go but he has a lot of learning to do.
Labour counts on this eventually telling in its favour. Labour rates Clark, with her encyclopaedic grasp of detail, breadth of knowledge across all portfolios and strength of character, its strongest asset. A poll or two in the spring suggested there might be room for Labour’s optimism on this count.
Except for three factors:
* Key is non-threatening, approachable and disarmingly open, which is an attractive counterpoint to his battle-armoured opponent.
* Household finances are tightening. That is not the economic background against which a government wants to start election year.
* The longer Clark has been in office the more vitriolic have become her detractors and haters. Thus she is also a liability (though on balance still more asset than liability).
Labour and Clark can do little about any of those factors unless (1) they can paint Key as the sheep’s clothing on an unre-engineered 1990s National wolf (not impossible but not easy) and (2) they can convince voters that if times are tight it is better to stick with experience.
And in addition it needs a forward message. Taking on climate change and linking it to national identity might have been that but momentum was lost this year and National is now aboard.
So then what? Even if Labour pegs National’s poll lead back to safe single figures by February, it will need a compelling lure for a fourth term. Finding that is Clark’s task when she heads for the mountains this Christmas.