The pesky problem of an opponent with no fatal flaws

Helen Clark, beset by John Key, is watching John Howard to see how (and if) he sees off Kevin Rudd this year. But some places Howard goes she can’t.

Howard’s latest cocktail of morality and politics is gobsmacking: send in police and the army to take the booze off Northern Territory Aborigine adults to cut down sexual and violent abuse of kids, which he calls a “national emergency”. Rudd has backed him.

Imagine the mayhem if Clark did that in south Auckland to Maori and Pacific islanders.

Imagine the stir if Key did. There is no evidential basis to think he would but he did go big on the “underclass” in January and did illustrate it with a treat at Waitangi for a Maori kid.

The international order offers a parallel.

In 2001 the United Nations developed a “responsibility to protect” doctrine. If a state is seriously mistreating its people or unable to stop others seriously mistreating its people, the doctrine says other states should provide that protection.

Thus in theory this country has a “responsibility to protect” Zimbabweans. When I aired the nascent doctrine here just before 9/11 I suggested Taleban-run Afghanistan as a candidate. In fact we, the United States and others did go into Afghanistan after 9/11. But the aim was to protect westerners from Al Qaeda.

Come back home: if any mother/father/relative/friend (anywhere, not just south Auckland) seriously mistreats a child, upon whom does the responsibility to protect that child fall? Logically, the rest of us, via the state and voluntary agencies.

News headlines suggest we have failed that responsibility. Moreover, taking the Afghanistan parallel, are we as a result also failing to protect ourselves? A child not stimulated from birth is less likely to learn well and more likely to fall short of potential as a contributor to the economy and society and thereby to all of us. An abused child may turn later to crime, at a large cost to victims and to taxpayers through the “justice” system and a new generation of abused children.

But how to do our protective bit? Key’s charity school breakfasts are too late in life. Steve Maharey’s watery “20 hours free” early childhood education is remedial but also too late. For mistreated and under-nurtured 0-3-year-olds welfare agencies are ambulances, not ladders of opportunity.

Which points to a wider issue for Key and Rudd: to get known in advance as ready for the top job with soundly researched and, as one Liberal old hand says, “road-tested” policy “product” to go with the marketing of the man.

As long as there is a suspicion among voters that they lack policy solidity, Key and Rudd are exposed to a “not yet ready” Clark-Howard counter-attack.

So Howard has hammered Rudd’s workplace relations policy — similar to Clark’s in positioning, though very different in detail — as a threat to economic wellbeing and (by allegedly restoring the whip to union musclemen in some industries) to personal freedom.

Howard has also tried to paint Rudd as economically illiterate and so not to be trusted with the Treasury. His Liberals will claim wall-to-wall federal-state Labor governments would collude to raise GST.

On workplace relations, Rudd’s team points to public and private polling which report large majorities against Howard’s deregulation, even after he hastily softened aspects this month. Rudd has also adjusted some of his policy to blunt business’s campaign against it.

Howard also has a problem getting people to see Rudd as a rogue manager of the economy. Rudd looks and sounds conservative and is unmistakably brainy. His counter-attack is to brand the deregulating Howard as the real economic radical.

Flip the mirror to this side of the Tasman: National paints Clark as a social radical, smacking being the latest example, while playing Key as a social and economic moderate.

Another parallel: Rudd and his MPs exhibit a policy fluency that comes with in-depth thinking — evident in a series of thick, detailed policy papers, principally on education and productivity — while over here Bill English and Co are (slowly) putting together discussion papers to “road-test” policy ideas (though English and Key have yet to synchronise fully). The environment paper last year was thick with policy indicators; the less solid recent rural issues paper solicited views on a range of issues; the forthcoming health paper is alleged to be innovative and well crafted.

OK, the Howard line of attack goes, if you’re having trouble knocking over the policy, gun for the messenger. So far that line hasn’t done Rudd significant damage either.

The reason, the author of a new “unauthorised” biography of Rudd says, is that Rudd has no “fatal flaws”. Likewise here Labour has yet to unearth any in Key.

Which accounts in part for Howard’s booze raid on Aborigines. Will Clark next year be able, or want, to come up with a comparable shock pitch for votes? On past form, no. But she wants a fourth term as badly as Howard wants a fifth.