The H word, a big exit and a star-quality new boy

It has been the year of the H word. It was the year of a big exit. It is the year a new boy topped the class.

Hypocrisy is so tempting to politicians that the word is banned in Parliament. There an MP’s word must be accepted until demonstrably proved false. But outside is a different story. Slowly, painfully, grindingly, Winston Peters conceded he had had big bucks from big business — the opposite of the underdog, victim image with which he had wooed and wowed the blue rinses.

His party was heading for extinction anyway. The exposure of his dark side cauterised all capillaries of hope.

But he was reflecting wider custom. Example: Television New Zealand tut-tutted over Tony Veitch while spooling a nightly playbill of anger, violence and killing. That behaviour and damage is normal in the plasma world. Small wonder our courts and prisons are full.

Small wonder, too, if you peep into the penumbral minds of Helen-haters. A small sample of the sad misogyny directed at Helen Clark in her 30 years of active politics reached me in emails, letters and conversation. A mild one was this text, from a woman, the day after the election: “Ding dong the witch is dead.”

Such violent expression directed at a fine public servant makes more readily comprehensible the general rise in criminal violence.

Clark had large faults. Few who reach high office in big corporations or in government don’t. It is a tough track.

She too quickly saw an enemy in a would-be friend, though she did also forge some unlikely working and personal relationships. She had blind spots, among them her too-slow-to-change suspicion of non-government ways of devising and delivering social services and not recognising until too late that tax cuts could be important even for low-income people as a surrogate wage increase when real wages were growing slowly.

Clark kept her government too close. Public servants who would eagerly have worked with a forward-looking, imaginative cabinet were treated not as colleagues but as servants, kept below-stairs.

She erroneously judged in 2005 that there had been a structural shift in the economy and the Budget and accelerated spending when actually the economic lift was an illusion fabricated on debt. She went past the warning signs that the social/moral liberalisation wave was reaching high tide.

So her domestic record was mixed.

Her standout domestic achievement was to settle the country down after the turbulent, revolutionary 1980s and 1990s.

Also, she accommodated to MMP and, with the redoubtable (and, in private, funny) Heather Simpson writing the fine print, set impressive standards in managing complex support arrangements with parties ranging from the religiously green Greens to the Christians who joined Peter Dunne after 2002.

She left her party, whose longest-serving leader she became, in better shape than she found it: an influx of young people, a more vibrant internal debate, a refreshed council and policy council and a top-drawer new president.

Likewise, she left her caucus revitalised, with an astonishingly smooth change to the next leader.

Few leaders manage rejuvenation and a good leadership transition. Clark has set a new benchmark.

But her biggest place in history will be where few voters look.

One was that she nourished and nurtured this nascent nation’s sense of heritage and identity at a critical time in its evolution. She did that without bombast, mostly under the radar in small places — perhaps even initially without quite intending to, judging by a conversation I had when she said in May 1999 she was taking the arts, culture and heritage portfolio.

Next to Norman Kirk, in modern times Clark was the nation-building Prime Minister.

Likewise abroad. Too many foreign ambassadors to be ignored told me she was taken seriously in their grand, cosmopolitan capitals. Her intellect and knowledge of the complexities of international affairs made her worth talking to. She thereby made New Zealand a bit bigger and a bit more worth others’ bother.

She was an important factor in China’s decision to do its first developed-economy free trade agreement with us. She seized on a change of tone in the United States to renormalise that relationship.

Helen Clark is my politician of the decade.

But she lost the election. This year belongs to a very different phenomenon of our politics.

John Key has star quality: he combines the ordinary and extraordinary.

Key’s past week was mixed at best, notably in the House where his take on mandate reeks of FPP arrogance. His tap-dancing on climate change risks serious consequences. He badly needs lessons in international relations.

So it is not clear yet how well he will do the top job and whether he has the imagination to convert our many huge advantages into a deep prosperity and cohesion.

But Key was fast and sure-footed en route to the top and in the first days. He has a keen instinct for middle New Zealand. He is indubitably the politician of 2008.