Remember Helengrad? That was the moniker applied to a micromanaging Prime Minister who scolded ministers, bureaucrats, journalists and anyone else who got a toe out of line--she who ruled with an iron hand.
And "was" is the operative word. You don't hear about"Helengrad" much nowadays. One newcomer to the Wellington cult of politics-watching hadn't heard it at all.
That speaks silent volumes about the evolution of Helen Clark's management. She is across the whole of the Government, just as in the Helengrad heyday, but no longer is she so obviously the potentate.
What has changed?
Mature, secure and centred
First, the Government has matured. In December 1999 only five of the Cabinet had previous ministerial experience. Now most of the ministers have been there three-and-a-half years, with relatively little shuffling among portfolios.
They are incumbents now. They know the wheezes, the shortcuts, the drill for dowsing the brushfires which are a Cabinet's daffy experience.
They've got to know their officials and, some of them, got on top. At least, they are no longer nervous or suspicious of them.
They've got through the "must-do's" that planted a different ethos in the Beehive. The language of Government, for the time being, is Labour.
The second big change in what used to be Helengrad is that Labour is up and National is down. Unease that voters might decamp back to the party that dominated government for half a century has gone.
The turning point that marks every government's eventual slide from power is not in sight. No government has gone this long without hitting the turning point since Sir Keith Holyoake's 40 years ago. Perhaps not since Labour's first turn in 1939 has a government been so high in public estimation in its fourth year.
The centre is Labour's. The old rival National is thrashing about in the margins.
Which leads to the third big change. Helen Clark is going home.
Home for child Helen was a small farm--quintessential middle New Zealand.
She left for a long OE in academia and the female left of the Labour party. She was there so long that what she learnt makes up much of her style and her policy leanings. But increasingly the farm girl is visible. Example: amidst the "dog-bites-girl" furore early this year she said dogs are for rounding up cows.
The farm girl is careful with money (the Budget must balance). The farm girl values order. The farm girl is conservative. She also knows how decent middling folk think because a farm girl is one of them. When the Appeal Court ruled the foreshore might be in Maori customary title, the farm gift knew instantly she had to keep it in public hands.
Yes, Clark reads polls. Devours, more like it. But increasingly she trusts her instincts. She very seldom commissions special polls, despite enduring myths to the contrary. The polls are a double-check not a marching order. Their use is to "throw up insights we didn't pick up".
Clark the information sponge
More important is listening. Sure, as Prime Minister, she makes pronouncements as an authority. But at least once during a week and often also at the weekend she is out of Wellington mingling with her subjects. Good managers walk the floor of their enterprise, listening to the rank and file, learning as well as commanding.
The range of people she meets is vast: top business to little old pensioners, grandees of the arts to tots at school. Once the wallflower, she now works a room as if born to it. She sponges information.
"I am out there so much that it's like running one big focus group yourself."
She instances opening a retirement home. "You've got the old people, you've got their families, pretty much middle-New Zealand. And you've got the lawyers, the architects, the builders, the designers, all associated with the project. …