It has been interesting to see the political commentator speculating about the reasons for the demise of what had been widely seen as an economically competent centre-left government which had served New Zealand well during the good times and had the experience to cope with the not so good.
Most don’t seem to be able to come up with anything more than “a swing to the right”, or it was “time for a change” – neither of which really say anything about why the electorate voted the way it did, especially when many countres overseas seem to be moving leftwards.
I’d suggest that it had a lot more to do with a Government that was perceived as losing its grip. During her first two terms as Prime Minister Helen Clark appeared decisively in command. Incompetence (apart from, inexplicably, Judith Tizard) was not tolerated. Nor was misconduct. Ruth Dyson (drunk driving) and Liane Dalziel (lying to the public) were promptly dispatched. Dover Samuels was stood down while allegations of sexual misconduct were investigated.
But in her third term, things inexplicable changed. These are the things that I think lost the centre-left the election:
- The Taito Phillip Field Affair Allegations of misconduct against Field had been simmering since just before the 2005 election. Instead of implementing a proper investigation with the teeth to interview witnesses under oath, Clark implemented an Claytons inquiry that was widely perceived as a whitewash designed to clear Field. Then despite further very serious allegations, Field was retained in the Labour Caucus right through to February 2007, creating a perception of tolerance of impropriety and possible corruption.
- The pledge card Labour’s handling of the pledge card and the Auditor-General’s report was appalling. The should have simply admitted “we got it wrong, and we’ll pay the money back” (as the Greens did). Instead, they allowed the pledge card affair to drag on interminably, and were subjected to daily allegations in Parliament of corruption. They hadn’t actually done anthing that most other political parties had done, but their reluctance to own up to their mistake and put it right undermined public confidence in them as a Government.
- David Benson-Pope Much like Taito Phillip Field actually, although the allegations were not so serious. The perception was created, through Clark’s continued tolerance of Benson-Pope through the “tennis balls affair” in which he had quite clearly been economical with the truth. He was finally dispatched in July 2007 after allegations of him lying to Parliament over matters relating to the appointment of a Communications Manager in the Ministry for the Environment. Clark said at the time, “The way in which certain issues have been handled this week has led to a loss of credibility and on that basis I have accepted Mr Benson-Pope’s offer to stand aside”. Pity for her that she didn’t realise he had lost credibility much earlier.
- The Electoral Finance Act This was handled by Labour in the most appalling way. The original Bill was so poorly drafted that Justice Minister Mark Burton deserved the sack for allowing a Bill that was such a shambles to come before Parliament. He was later quietly stood down, but by that time the damage had been done. Labour railroaded the Bill through Parliament, refusing to consider very pertinent submissions from organisations such as the Human Rights Commission or suggestions from the Green Party who were left with a “take it or leave it” option. This allowed the right to create the perception of the Electoral Finance Bill, and consequently of Labour, being undemocratic – a task which the NZ Herald took up with great gusto.
- Winston Peters Need I say more. Clark stood by Peters as allegation after allegation of impropriety and, in the last few weeks, even corruption emerged against Peters. In her first and second terms he would have been promptly dispatched, at least temporarily, for allegations of far less substance, but her continued tolerance of him as a Minister allowed her and her government to be tarred with the same brush as Peters.
New Zealanders don’t like the perception of tolerance of incompetence, deceipt or corruption, nor will they tolerate a Government that they perceive as acting in a high-handed or self-serving manner.
If Clark had acted decisively on these five issues above, she may still be Prime Minister.