When the art of political management counts

What has Helen Clark got that John Key hasn’t? Deep experience in management of policy, foreign affairs and government.

What did Clark have that Don Brash didn’t? Competence at political management — managing the politics.

What did she fall down on last year? Political management. Why is the Owen Glenn affair a bother now? Because of past and continuing failures of political management.

Why does political management matter? First — of concern only to the party involved — because a major party deficient in political management is usually outsmarted in political marketing by its opponent, which counts in a consumerist age. Second — of concern to all of us — because failures of political management implicitly raise questions about the quality of policy and government management.

The question Labour seniors on the cabinet honours committee might ask themselves is why they did not register that political opponents, the media and the public might misread the reason for Glenn’s gong. Why did they not delay it till a safer time?

The question Labour president Mike Williams and general secretary Mike Smith might ask themselves is whether they have been too long in their jobs — a question Clark, who insisted Williams stay on after 2005, might ask herself. Williams got Glenn’s loan to the party wrong. Smith was too slow with his plausible explanation of the party’s treatment of the foregone interest.

It was a sticky patch, sure, but swift, concerted action by the cabinet and the party last week could have limited the damage.

What do failures of political management telegraph to voters about a government? That it is taking power too much for granted.

Glenn appears to be a man who can make dollars but not sense. But he is not alone.

Clark could not have offered him a cabinet post, as alleged. The Constitution Act 1986, written by Sir Geoffrey Palmer when Deputy Prime Minister, requires ministers to be members of Parliament.

The excellent news about Glenn is his generosity. He does not hide in Europe with his swag, as some rich expats do. He makes things happen at home. Auckland University and the country have benefited far more than Labour from his huge benevolence. Glenn merited his gong.

Moreover, for National to query it is breathtaking. National honed to a fine art the practice of thus rewarding donors and will do so again. We will see swags of “services to business” gongs once John Key is in the saddle.

But that does not undo Clark and Co’s failure of political management.

Take another big negative from last week: hospital statistics.

Set aside the fact that, if there really were only 182 “sentinel” events, at a rate of 0.02 per cent of treatments that is actually a good news story for the country even if sad for the individuals. How many enterprises manage only two serious mistakes out of every 10,000 complex work activities?

The problem for Labour is that in opposition before 1999 and in government since then it managed up expectations and then poured large quantities of your money into trying to prove those expectations can be met.

The expectations can’t be met. The United States spends nearly twice the percentage of GDP on health as this country and delivers a lower lifespan expectation. That should be cause for wonderment at what our system achieves.

The wonderment is all the more warranted in the light of a defective hybrid governance model thrust on them by this government. David Cunliffe’s depositions of board chairs — Wellington in December, Hawkes Bay this week — underlines that defect.

What actually is Cunliffe trying to deliver, stripped of the grandstanding? That the government is in charge, that things will get rapidly better, that it will deliver on the expectations it has unrealistically managed up.

Too late. “Health” is now a negative for the government.

The art of capable political management is to under-promise and over-deliver. Who said that? Clark, often.

Voters bank what a government delivers and then, drilled into a consumerist mentality, expect more. As interest rates, petrol, electricity and food bite into households’ capacity to spend (too much of it in recent years by bingeing on debt), Key’s tax cuts, however unspecific, sound like “more” and Clark and Michael Cullen sound like “more of the same”.

Is there still time for Clark and Cullen to turn voters’ hearts and minds? The most that can be said as the mistakes roll on is that in politics one can never say never. And Key, too, has had small lapses of political management this past fortnight…

* Cheryl Farland, Kerikeri kindergarten head, says her kindergarten has been educating its children since at least 1996. My column last week referred to impressive educative work by some providers but it could also have been read as saying kindergartens provided education as a byproduct of care. Farland’s comment underlines the column’s point: that education for under-5s is an important infrastructural investment.