How can Clark possibly be 'fresh' like John Key?

Here’s an idea for Helen Clark, under suspicion for her Electoral Finance Act: name the election date today in her annual opening address to Parliament, then propose future election dates be fixed and regular.

Playing the time-dishonoured cat-and-mouse game with the election date this year might risk compounding the impression many voters have that Clark somehow set out to undermine democracy with her election finance law.

The National party will do its damnedest to keep those suspicions alive, along with some unsavoury mates: billboards likening the legislation’s supporters to dictators and “free speech” hooligans shouting down Jeanette Fitzsimons’ defence of the legislation in November and throwing a brick through the Greens’ Auckland office window last week.

If Clark, who pulled an early election on a pretext in 2002, set this year’s election date now, that would strike a small blow for democracy. A logical date would be October 18, safely past the usual August passing of the Budget but before Labour weekend and comfortably before the last constitutional date, November 15, which would invite charges of clinging to power.

With the date fixed now, other parties and candidates would not have to guess how to time their run and so their spending.

A bold, fresh Clark could even bill it as a step towards a permanently fixed regular election date, which she mused on in 2005, provided the parliamentary term was four years. The New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian state Parliaments have fixed four-year terms and former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is a convert.

A bold, fresh Clark could propose a binding referendum, to be held with this year’s election, on fixed election dates. That would mesh with her small steps last year towards a wider public role in major decision-making with her climate change leadership forum and citizens jury on future electoral law issues.

Fixed dates would remove the tactical advantage flexible dates give Prime Ministers and thus also remove what amounts to prime ministerial presumption to exercise an ancient — and now surely anachronistic — royal prerogative.

It would underline that elections belong — or should belong — to the people, not the politicians.

And it might depict Clark to voters as game to try something fresh.

That is important because “fresh” is John Key’s critical advantage.

Clark has been more than 14 years and two months Labour leader, now longest-serving by some accounts. She was an MP 27 years ago, a minister 21 years ago and Deputy Prime Minister 19 years ago. She is long in the political tooth.

Key is still new. He has not accumulated enemies as Clark has. He promises a “fresh start”. The potency of that slogan is in its plausibility.

Key is not promising a change of direction. He has signed up to most of Labour’s major policy positions. His “fresh start” for young people predisposed to crime two weeks back consisted mainly of more vigorous action on programmes already in place.

Instead of a new direction, Key’s “fresh start” promises fresh energy in the current direction: some amendments and over time discernible leans but nothing dramatic or unsettling.

Key is able to do that plausibly because, unlike his predecessor and his opponent, he is not defined by the debates of the past.

Don Brash was a star participant in the 1980s-90s free-market reforms and a moral liberal (his late populist foray was palpably false). Helen Clark learned her politics on the “progressive” side of the 1960s Vietnam war arguments and her politics has been framed by her positioning on sport with South Africa, environmentalism, moral liberalism and identity politics and the free-market reforms.

Key postdates the intense periods of those arguments. In 1981 when Clark was opposing the Springbok tour, he was apolitical, preferring squash to swot.

Key can plausibly present himself as offering “fresh” politics. He can imply he has answers to the “crisis” he says besets us without proposing radical policy change, simply because he is of a new political cohort.

He can even take large political risks, hand-in-hand with Titewhai Harawira and hongi-ing Television New Zealand’s darling, Tame Iti, who faces serious criminal charges. He can walk where Clark cannot.

Key was able last year to propose a compromise on smacking, then support the bill, yet collect none of the pro-smacking lobby’s odium. A little like a fresh David Lange in 1984 moving on from a Sir Robert Muldoon squatting on history, Key points forward.

There are loose parallels in United States presidential candidate Barack Obama, British Tory leader David Cameron and Kevin Rudd in Australia.

Can Clark now do a Hillary Clinton and get back in the race? That will partly depend on what she can do that is “fresh”. She can reel off a list of her government’s initiatives. But the acid electoral test of freshness is whether voters — half of whom are now Key’s age or younger — buy into her line.

If they don’t, Key is there, fresh as rain.