Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


A New Cabinet?

11/10/2005

As Helen Clark shuffles her worn pack of cards in search of a new ministry, spare a thought for how difficult Don Brash would have found the exercise had he pulled off the election. In his case he had only 25 MPs with any parliamentary experience. More than half of them lacked ministerial capability. Brash's party, however, has bounced back from the brink, bringing into the new House a collection of able people. Clark is soldiering on with the remnants of twenty years' worth of indifferent candidate selections, and no rejuvenation process in sight. We could all be the losers over the next three years.

Selecting quality parliamentary candidates has always been vital to national progress. Leaders of big parties should, and usually have, taken a close interest in selections, though not always for the good of their parties. Peter Fraser was a great Prime Minister. But his wartime Labour government seemed unable to go past union secretaries to fill a vacant safe seat. Fraser's chickens - or were they boiler bantams? - came home to roost when Walter Nash formed his government in 1957. Apart from the Prime Minister who by then was nearly 76, there were only three or four competent people in his team. It was a poor government. Norman Kirk faced similar problems in 1972, although he had gradually turned his attention to a renewal process after becoming Labour's president in 1964. Later presidents, Bill Rowling, Arthur Faulkner and Jim Anderton, upped selection standards to such an extent that Prime Minister Muldoon fretted publicly in 1982 that Labour was strong enough to govern for several terms.

Why did the standard of Labour candidates suddenly drop in the late 1980s? Why is Helen Clark staring at so many aspirants who, in earlier days, wouldn't have qualified as under-secretaries? The sequence of events is clear: the cause isn't. Three women, all of them part of Helen Clark's current team, played a major role in lifting her into Labour's leadership. Coincidentally, they reduced the quality of Labour's team. Old buddy Margaret Wilson who Clark tapped to become president in 1984, pushed aside quality people in favour of second raters for safe seats in 1987. There was strong criticism from party members, and from Cabinet and caucus. No matter: they won in sufficient numbers to lift Clark into the deputy prime-ministership in August 1989. Ruth Dyson and Maryann Street, again promoted by Clark, continued with more weak selections for the 1990 and 1993 elections. Their primary purpose was soon achieved: immediately after the latter election, and before the new MPs had even been sworn into office, they rolled Mike Moore as leader, installing Helen Clark.

The mystery is not why Clark became leader. She possesses many talents and amazing managerial instincts. The enigma is why her minions could find only weak people to hoist her up the greasy political pole. The country is assuredly now paying the price with too many second-rate decision-makers. This matters with the economy slowing. The handful of competent ministers like Michael Cullen, Phil Goff, Jim Sutton, Trevor Mallard, Annette King, and Clark herself, were Jim Anderton's selections. The long, undistinguished tail to the Clark ministry is detritus from the Wilson/Dyson/Street years. While three ministers have announced their resignations, another six or seven should join them. But there are few capable backbenchers to fill the slots. Just as in Fraser's day, the Labour caucus again seems to have become a rest home for union functionaries with little learning, no appreciation of global realities and their disciplines, and superfluous agitational skills. Helen Clark's buddies run the risk of being remembered as people who promoted her, while retarding their party's future. Labour must recruit talent, and promote it, tout de suite. In coming days Clark will trumpet her new team's blokey image; media toadies will echo her. But this can't be a star-studded ministry. The raw material isn't there.

Ironically, National's disastrous performance in 2002 gave them an opportunity to remake their caucus. Their first selections for the 2005 election looked less than promising, but several unexpected electorate victories, some glamour on the party list, and an energetic campaign that nearly took Don Brash to office, have ensured National has sufficient skills to form a credible cabinet in 2008. Twenty five years after Muldoon's fretting, the parties have swapped places. This time it's Helen Clark who will be rueing the fact that her opponents have the more promising future.