Magazine article New Zealand Management

A Leading Question

Magazine article New Zealand Management

A Leading Question

Article excerpt

This year is the halfway point in the new millennium's first decade. It is also a 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 a 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 a set of agendas. Ideologues and radicals were a 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. A bout of populism with Sir Robert Muldoon weakened its appeal to its core vote. A bout of radicalism with Ruth Richardson un-did its moderate, mainstream image and spawned New Zealand First. It held power through the 1990s only because Labour was desperately weak.

Nevertheless, a coterie of younger MPs, centred around Bill English, projected a 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 a raft of policies and laws, most recently civil unions and the smoking ban, that should logically have played into National's hands.

But half a century in power had eviscerated National and wearied voters. …

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