Politics: Can She Do It?

Members of Parliament are slowly getting the hang of managing MMP. Another couple of Parliaments and they might be there.

They have been held up making progress because – for those in the two old parties at least – they have been responding to the old system’s incentives. In making her unspoken but nevertheless unmistakable bid for an absolute majority, Prime Minister Helen Clark displayed that mentality.

But now she has different prize dangling in front of her and it is one worth every bit as much to major party leader as majority rule. It offers long-term government on the Scandinavian model.

MMP, as practised in Germany, is two-main-party system little different from the one we used to know. Either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats hold power, with small party, and there are one or two small parties.

This loosened bit in the 1990s, partly because of the rise of the Greens and because of the absorption of the old east Germany, with its communist rule hangover.

The logic of our system is that it would fine down to two-plus-two arrangement. Until early this year that seemed to be nicely on track.
Then came National’s decline.

What Clark can now see beckoning is something more like the Scandinavian model: strong centre-left party flanked by party to its left and party to its right versus fragmented right opposition around weak centre-right party, National.

National’s original rationale was to be the conservative alternative to reforming and at times radical Labour party. But National cast that off in the 1990s, taking on the mantle of radical reformer. If Clark takes over as the principal conservative, albeit of slightly left variety, what is National’s role? What distinguishes it?

The right did not noticeably fight the July election on economic, tax-cutting grounds. Those grounds have lost their primacy with an electorate that supports tax cuts more than it worries about service cuts.

So the right parties fought on crime, the Waitangi Treaty and, in the case of New Zealand First, immigration. These are psycho-social issues, not socio-economic ones. They do not fit into the electoral mould from which the old two-party system was forged.

These are issues on which the left parties are inherently weak. They tend to view criminals, at least in part, as the victim of social conditions. They draw much support from Maori as socio-economic underclass. They celebrate multiculturalism, which includes often struggling socio-economic groups.

So left parties are vulnerable to coordinated attack from the right.

Except for one complication: Peter Dunne.

Dunne and his motley United Future crew are right of centre on both economic and moral grounds. But during the campaign he emphasised the need to attack the causes of crime as much as the criminals and he backed multiculturalism.

So now there is raw material for Clark to fashion working arrangement that draws United Future into Labour-led tent.

Whether she can do that will depend on how well or badly two huge management jobs are done.

One is Dunne’s management of his greenhorn mob. It has range of views almost as disparate as you might expect in large party, from relatively liberal across to downright reactionary.

What are his chances? About 50:50. He is personable and clear-sighted, with high personal mana. But there will inevitably be skeletons in the cupboards of such an untried lot. And even if he succeeds, he will find it difficult to maintain the astonishing vote he attracted on July 27. After the next election he may be lucky to have four or five MPs.

But his management problems pale beside Clark’s. She must keep the Greens, her leftwing and Maori in the same tent as Dunne’s evangelical Christians.

She is helped by two incentives on the Greens and United Future to accommodate her. The Greens cannot progress their programme through the right. Dunne has no future if he cannot establish his party as stabilising force in an unstable system, in the way centre parties are in northern Europe.

But to get there she must shuck her nostalgia for majority government and fully embrace MMP. That is major change of mentality for someone brought up in Labour party that made solidarity discipline articles of doctrine.

Can she do it? Give her the same odds as Peter Dunne. M

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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