As Clark passes a milestone a legacy issue arises

On Thursday Helen Clark goes past Sir Robert Muldoon to become the fifth-longest-serving Prime Minister (and sixth-longest head of government). Muldoon’s legacy was division and decay. Hers is still in the making and a big test is just ahead.

Part of her legacy will be on show this weekend in a rare visit by a United States Secretary of State (foreign minister).

That reflects the United States’ need, initiated by State Department professionals in 2005-06, to remake old friendships after the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld adventurism. But it also reflects Clark’s intelligent and skilful conduct of foreign affairs generally — the most competent so far of our Prime Ministers — and her constructive engagement with the United States. Foreign policy is now bipartisan again between the two big parties for the first time since the 1960s.

The Condoleezza Rice visit encapsulates a second dimension of her prime ministership. Winston Peters has added pro-Americanism and charm to the re-engagement. Clark’s constructive engagement with her prickly show-pony helper (who has now joined her in Owen Glenn’s miasma) has added new dimensions to the craft of managing MMP governments and Parliaments.

And in her early years as Prime Minister she unified a fractious country. She sanded rough edges off the 1980s-90s economic and social policy reforms, to the electorate’s approval. Much of that, too, is now not contested by the National party. Clark earned her second and third terms.

But has she earned a fourth term? And, if not, will she leave behind the makings of the next, sixth, Labour government?

First, note her assertive pushing of the liberal envelope: prostitution and gay quasi-marriage legalised, whacking of children outlawed. On each there was a majority in the electorate. But cumulatively they chipped away at her early majoritarian repute. The foreshore and seabed and electoral finance sagas were compounding factors.

Second, she has failed to delineate an attractive future the electorate can identify with and want her to lead it to. She has been more at home listing interventions that have made life better for this or that group. The future got parked in multiple strategies, frameworks and roadmaps. She did light upon “sustainability”, but rather late and without a compelling sales message for a vague notion that more readily connotes cost than opportunity.

That is not an antidote to a fresh-face National leader.

Stir in a house market collapse, high fuel and food prices and the Clark goose is nicely basted, ready for cooking.

Clark, however, is determined she will not be cooked. She is on the road campaigning hard and getting warm receptions. She insists there is still a chance. She apparently told her MPs at their special caucus on July 8 that they are in a marathon, not a sprint.

But is she in the right marathon? Hers is to election day. The party’s, properly stated, is to the next decade and beyond, whether or not she somehow pulls off a fourth term.

The issue is Labour’s strength in Parliament long-term, starting with the next term.

That focuses on the list, due probably August 30. The question for Clark is whether she will assert her authority to insist on a bold list that cleans out has-beens and injects the abundant energy ready in the wings or leaves too much of it waiting for 2011. And will that list reflect closely her politics or can she inject diversity (by, for example, getting business-experienced Stuart Nash, Epsom candidate in 2005, well placed)?

Clark has promoted 40-somethings in her cabinet and they are starting to show through, though too late to impress voters. She has prodded MPs to retire.

Of the 15 elected in 2005 who are retiring one way or another, seven vacate electorate seats. New candidates should win at least six. All but two of those candidates are 47 or under, which is the rising half of the electorate.

But if all sitting MPs are given priority places on the list, there is little room for new blood there unless Labour gets 38 per cent — 35 per cent if New Zealand First doesn’t make it back into Parliament and 1 per cent less if Damien O’Connor loses West Coast-Tasman.

For Labour to be sure of getting people like Chinese lawyer Raymond Huo, ex-Oxfam heavy Phil Twyford (slotted eventually to follow Clark into Mt Albert), rising youngster Jacinda Ardern, promising Maori Kelvin Davies and Nash, some of the half-dozen or so underwhelming list MPs need demotion.

Regional conferences ranked their regions’ candidates months ago and, while some insiders think the list committee will demote some MPs — it also has the power to appoint outsiders — serious rearrangement would need a tick from Clark.

Most insiders I have checked with suggest she will be wary of that because it might telegraph defeatism and Clark is not defeatist.

But a leader’s legacy is not just action while leader. It is also what is set up for the next leader. Clark sometimes surprises. Her list will be a test.