A contrast in leaders shapes the election decision

Leaders count. They add personality to parties, a prism through which voters see, and in part assess, the parties.
Leaders have always counted. In 1928, long before television brought leaders up close in the living room, the resurrection of old-stager Sir Joseph Ward, portrayed as a financial wizard in hard times, won the ramshackle United party enough seats to govern. By 1984 television-smart Sir Robert Muldoon had driven droves of National voters to despair with his bullying and statist economic policies. Defeat was assured.

In mid-1996 Helen Clark was so unalluring that senior MPs plotted her removal. A few months later, remodelled from bluestocking to clothes-horse, she bested Jim Bolger in a television debate and won a respectable election result. She is now Labour’s strongest campaign asset, still polling high approval ratings.

Small parties often are their leaders. Rodney Hide’s win in Epsom in 2005 saved ACT. Winston Peters saved New Zealand First in Tauranga in 1999. United Future depends on Peter Dunne’s hold on Ohariu and Jim Anderton’s Progressives are just him in Wigram.

Even the Greens, who go more for message than massage, might well not have cleared 5 per cent in 1999 and 2005 without Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald.

The Maori party taps into a pumping vein of resentment and aspiration. Still, Tariana Turia’s grandmotherly admonitions make it more saleable to its target voters and Pita Sharples’ smoothing of sharp edges reaches a broader constituency.

But small parties pitch to small constituencies (though Anderton’s Alliance did get 18 per cent in 1993 and New Zealand First 13 per cent in 1996).

Big parties have to pitch to wide constituencies. So do their leaders. This is not just a Labour v National contest to lead the government; it is a Clark v John Key contest for Prime Minister. In part, the election is about how broad their personalities are.

The Clark v Key contest shapes a sharply different Labour v National contest from Mike Moore Labour v Jim Bolger National in 1993 and different, too, from Clark/Labour v Don Brash/National in 2005 and Clark/Labour v Bill English/National in 2002.

Clark is long-experienced, active since 1971 in politics, including international politics, an MP since 1981, Deputy Prime Minister in 1989-90, Labour’s longest-serving leader and, come this Friday, fifth longest-serving head of government. She came into office in 1999 formidably apprenticed for the job (economics excepted but since fixed). Policy is in her bones.

She has worked hard to be what she is not naturally, cooing at babies and brightly smiling in malls (her trademark frown is actually concentration), sitting through rugby matches, adding critical weight to the final bid for the rugby world cup.

She learnt her politics in a rough trade. Misogynistic bullies ran Labour in the 1970s. That partly accounts for her take-no-prisoners style and her refusal to say sorry for her painting forgery and her Indy-500 drive through Canterbury.

It also limits her capacity to unite. Too many in the provinces and suburbs see Clark as representing a liberal urban elite and imposing its values where they don’t fit. That counted against Labour in the provinces in 2005. It lay behind the furore over the whacking bill. During this campaign opposition parties get guffaws with jibes about laws on light bulbs and showerheads.

Clark, though born provincial, is quintessentially metropolitan.

So is John Key, habitu´┐Ż of London, New York, Singapore and Sydney. Yet he connects with provincial social conservatives. In part, that is by feeding them a vengeful law-and-order diet just to their taste. In part, it is his sunny confidence, an ease in himself which is a sort of charm. He gets on with people. Though a loner by trade, he is potentially a unifier.

But he is just six years an MP — less experienced than any previous pretender to the top job, including David Lange. He was abroad until 2001 and is still new to the National party.

To fill those huge gaps, he has had to swot policy. He has flipped on too many issues to permit confidence about his line. He has too convenient a memory, which gives him a cavalier or devious sheen. He claims economic expertise but says “productivity” when he should say “productivity growth”. He knows little about international affairs.

In short, unlike Clark in 1999, Key is not ready. But he learns fast and, just as he has grown quickly into an MP and a leader, would likely grow quickly into a prime minister. And he has accurate instincts, shown in ruling Peters out.

So will he get there? For two years I have thought so. This doesn’t feel like 1990, so Clark might get there, not least because the small-party arithmetic, for the Maori party in particular, puts the “left” much closer to the “right” than appears at first glance. And polls are just polls. But the odds are with Key.

* For the record, I won’t vote. I haven’t voted since 1975. That, in my view, goes with the job.