POLITICS A Leading Question

This year is the halfway point in the new millennium’s first decade. It is also decider in the contest between the two big political parties over which will lead for the rest of the decade and perhaps even further into the future.
National was the lead party in the 50 years to 1999. Though its grip was shaky towards the end, the odds in 2000 were that it would reassert its domination. But Helen Clark’s Labour party stole march.
Simply put, Labour represented sectional interests in the 20th century and its members had ideological agendas which, when pushed too far, disconnected it from mainstream voters.
National’s simple priority was to govern, not push set of agendas. Ideologues and radicals were small minority in its ranks. It held the mainstream by offering mildly reforming conservatism.
But the cards were tossed in the air by the 1980s market-led revolution. Labour ministers greatly increased social spending but their economic management diametrically opposed the agendas of its special interest groups, hurting many ordinary folk in the process.
Moreover, its special interest groups had multiplied. In the 1940s Labour was predominantly the unions’ party, and unions represented most workers. By the 1970s the number of unionised manual workers had dwindled and Labour was increasingly influenced by special interest groups pushing women’s rights, Maori, ethnic minorities, gays and other disadvantaged or angry groups. The mainstream connection frayed badly.
Then National also came adrift. bout of populism with Sir Robert Muldoon weakened its appeal to its core vote. bout of radicalism with Ruth Richardson undid its moderate, mainstream image and spawned New Zealand First. It held power through the 1990s only because Labour was desperately weak.
Nevertheless, coterie of younger MPs, centred around Bill English, projected new conservatism; market-oriented but not economically radical, mildly reforming but attentive to the desire for moderation in other policies.
With the 1990s behind it, logic suggested National’s up-and-comers would gazump Labour’s likely leftish, sectional-interest orientation after the novelty of its spin in power had worn off.
And, indeed, Labour introduced raft of policies and laws, most recently civil unions and the smoking ban, that should logically have played into National’s hands.
But half century in power had eviscerated National and wearied voters. Bill English could articulate the new conservatism in private but couldn’t project it in public.
On the other hand the economy delivered growing prosperity and Labour kept its leftish, sectional-interest policies in check. So National and English bombed in 2002.
Switching to Don Brash hasn’t worked. Michael Cullen put his finger on the problem when he said in December’s adjournment debate that Brash is “ACT’s 10th MP”.
He isn’t. But that is his reputation. National must perform an extraordinary feat this year to head off Labour: recast policy as centrist (non-ACT, non-Richardsonian) while making the most of Brash’s natural authority.
The one policy area where his authority worked (initially) is Maori rights. Nothing in polling history has ever matched National’s bounce after last year’s Orewa speech.
But that is not whole election policy, still less government policy. In any case Labour, with New Zealand First’s help, has drawn much of its sting, especially after iwi took up arms against the Foreshore and Seabed Act and swarmed to Tariana Turia’s new party.
From looking like the Maori party after Orewa, Labour has manoeuvred itself somewhere nearer the mainstream on Treaty issues. Brash began to sound shrill as he sought ground out to the right. The same goes for his slogans on law and order and education and – until his U-turns into the arms of his centrists on superannuation, holidays and tax – on the economy, too.
Has National repositioned in time to save the 2005 election? Probably not. And, if not, it might be even harder after 2008 to reclaim lead-party status.
Frankly, Clark and Labour are recasting themselves as mainstream, playing on notions of heritage and national pride, moderate economic management, the “ownership society” and suggesting an end to special interest legislation – at least for time.
This doesn’t, of course, decide the contest. If National’s centrists emerge strongly in the next term and if Labour fudges the language and the symbolism, National might yet regain the initiative.
But being in government confers great advantage. If National concedes another three years to Labour this year, that might seal the contest. sobering thought for Brash and his band.

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

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