Sludge Report #140 - Reading The Entrails
In This Edition: Reading The Entrails Of Election 2002 - “She’s A Hard Road Finding The Perfect Prime Minister” - Advice For The Meat In The Sandwich
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Sludge Report #140
Reading The Entrails Of Election 2002
Now the dust is beginning to settle Sludge thinks the best thing that can be said about the weekend’s election is that it was extremely traumatic for everybody involved.
The left-left, aka the Alliance, has been annihilated. Jim’s left didn’t do much better while the green-left GE-Free NZ campaign, received a major setback with significantly less vote than the polls had led them to expect.
Labour too received such a disappointing result that the PM waited till 11.30pm to emerge from her house, and then delivered a speech that was far more angry than triumphant.
The best spin she could find to explain away a campaign during which her poll ratings fell from 56% to 41% was to make comparisons with historic victories of Michael Joseph Savage, David Lange and Sid Holland, who, she said, like her had extended their majorities for a second term.
Of course the simple observation that those elections were FPP and that this was MMP, and that unlike Helen, Michael and Harry both actually had majorities to extend puts this comparison in the light it deserves.
Meanwhile on the other side of the house National had their worst electoral night ever. They haemorrhaged votes to New Zealand First’s recipe of “fewer Asians and lock-em-all-up”, and United Future’s “common sense”.
ACT’s Richard Prebble said he was pleased to be returned with as many MPs as last time. But being returned unscathed, especially when your key ally has been nearlu annihilated, cannot really be considered much of a victory. Given National’s poor run, ACT should have expected to do much better than just tred water.
Even Winston Peters, whose NZ First emerged as the big winner of the night with 13 MPs, didn’t exactly have a great night when the PM decided to reserve the most bitter of her bile for a stinging criticism of Peter’s divisive political rhetoric. And while the result is on its face good for Winston, in reality it seems clear that the Government (and everybody else) have no intention of including Winston in any MMP consensus forming plans.
And so in the end only Peter Dunne really had much of a night to celebrate.
But like the nine Pennsylvania miners rescued over the weekend he can probably only put down his success to divine intervention. And this means he now finds himself working with a less than clear song-sheet on what to do next.
“She’s A Hard Road Finding The Perfect Prime Minister”
Somewhere in the deep south a weather-beaten shepherd looks up from his copy of the Otago Daily Times where he has been reading about the election. “That Helen, you know, she seems to get a bit wild when she’s riled”, he remarks to a rustic companion. “She’s a hard road finding the perfect Prime Minister,” he replies.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the 2002 election campaign is going to be its impact on the public perception of our nation’s great leader.
As Pam Corkery remarked on TV1’s Sunday programme, the PM has in the past four weeks “lost her air of invincibility”.
Through the campaign we all saw far too much of the PM’s wild side. First Paintergate, and then Corngate brought out possibly the worst side to her political persona.
Meanwhile, even when not walking out of interviews and losing her temper with journalists, Clark’s contribution to the campaign appeared to primarily revolve around making nasty comments about her opponents.
Winston was a racist. The Greens were a lunatic fringe trying to hold her government to ransom and National had stooped to the level of libel in their campaign against her.
Even in the final week of the campaign when the PM appeared to be trying to do her best to show her nice side, she began the week by accusing the Alliance’s Laila Harre of making up a poll result.
Why was all this necessary?
Wasn’t Laila in her cabinet? Didn’t the Green Party support her government for the past three years?
Had Helen Clark been less antagonistic to the Greens about the GE Moratorium, and more cooperative with the Alliance would she have received a better result in the end? In Sludge’s view the answer is definitely yes.
This was no Tony Blair modelled big-tent campaign. It was, to be blunt, what Winston described it as, a naked attempt to grab complete power for herself, and bugger her friends and allies.
And for the left as a whole this tactic has been disastrous.
At the beginning of the campaign, and for most of the past 12 months, the left leaning end of the political spectrum was receiving well over 60% of the total vote. The left should have been returned to power with 72 seats or more.
But four weeks of back-stabbing have taken their toll. And the reality is that the left has sneaked rather than swept back into the Beehive with a significantly smaller overall majority than it enjoyed last time.
In 1999 Labour, the Alliance and the Greens had 66 seats between them. This time Labour, Jim and the Greens have just 62.
And there are clear lessons in all this for Helen Clark about a) the nature of MMP and b) the realities of leadership.
The first lesson is that it is now clear, if it wasn’t already so, that the public do not want anyone to have the keys to the Beehive in their own right.
Hence if Helen wants to remain in government in the future then she has to foster her coalition partners over the next three years, not attempt to swallow them whole as she did to the Alliance. Or hack them to pieces on the campaign trail as she tried with the Greens.
The second and perhaps more important lesson from all this is that Helen Clark needs to learn that no-one expects her to be perfect. The Prime Minister is not expected to never make mistakes.
Paintergate was a mistake. Her mistake. Corngate too was a mistake, and again it was her mistake. And the Election 2002 campaign strategy was also a mistake.
Now has come the time for Helen to fess up. To speak frankly about her mistakes and to reassure her faithful supporters that she has learned from them. If she does so the public perception of her leadership abilities will grow.
Clark is still a hugely popular Prime Minister, and in spite of all the water that has passed under the electoral bridge she is indubitably still the best person to lead New Zealand.
But please, let us have back the Helen Clark of old, the one who was armed with a smile rather than a meat cleaver.
Advice For The Filling In The Sandwich
Speaking of meat and cleavers, in the sandwich that makes up the 2002 Parliament, the Greens and United Future New Zealand are the filling. And much of the flavour of what happens next will be down to them.
Sludge has a piece of simple advice for the filling.
Last time round the filling got eaten. And this time it would pay to learn from the mistakes that previous junior partners of Helen Clark made. Specifically there is strength in numbers, use it.
Asked on Radio New Zealand this morning if she saw any call for Labour, the Greens and United Future to get together for tripartite talks Helen Clark replied to Sean Plunket with a very curt “no”.
Bipartisan understandings between her and her two junior partners were all that is needed, she said. Sludge is picking that the pressure will be on to keep them in separate buildings too.
While from the perspective of the sandwich bun a clear separation between the fillings is probably the best option, for the doings - who will inevitably have to spend the rest of the Parliamentary term lying on top of one another - it is far from clear that taking directions from the bun would be a wise thing to do.
Sludge would in fact go far further and suggest that until the Prime Minister has made it clear she has given up her Machiavellian aspirations, giving into her bipartisan agreement stance could be positively hazardous to their parties health.
Moreover if anyone is capable of discovering the common ground in such circumstances it is the Jedi master of consensus politics Jeanette Fitzsimons, and Mr Common-sense Peter Dunne.
Apart from anything else there are in fact already several areas in which the United Future Party and the Greens are already apparently on all fours, child poverty for example.
And while Sludge was rather surprised to hear it, given Peter Dunne’s previous lobby-group driven affiliations, at least part of the United Future Party also seem to be in favour of extending the ever so contentious GE moratorium.
With Jim Anderton also backing GE-in-the-lab the numbers in favour of solving the biggest hurdle for the embryonic 2002 coalition, at 19 in favour to 42 against, are far closer than they appear to be at first blush.
And so, if Greens and United Future want to save themselves a lot of future headaches, it is now time to set up a meeting.