When governments tear themselves apart

by Bill Ralston / 21 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Governments NZ

Former Prime Minister David Lange is congratulated by Jim Bolger after his valedictory speech in Parliament in 1996. Photo/Getty Images

Governments that ride triumphantly into power must learn a lesson from history.

One morning after the 1975 election, in which a resurgent National Party had ousted a one-term Labour Government, I stood in an upstairs corridor of the deserted Parliament Building.

I had flown to Wellington to collect some government papers I needed for my never-to-be-finished masters thesis. Outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Bob Tizard walked past, whistling tunelessly, and disappeared through a dark-panelled door. I wandered away, thinking to myself, “This is how a government dies: not with a bang but a forlorn whistle.”

Labour, led by the charismatic Norman Kirk, had been elected in 1972, but barely 20 months later, Kirk was dead and Bill Rowling was leader. In the year before the next election, the Government was staggering under the weight of rising debt and the trade impact of the UK joining the European Economic Community and lacked a clear economic policy.

The newly elected National Government, with Robert Muldoon as Prime Minister, lasted longer, nearly three full terms, until one night, alarmed at the risk of one or two of his rebellious backbenchers crossing the floor on some legislation, he drunkenly called a snap election. He lost.

For the next three years, David Lange and Labour looked good. Finance Minister Roger Douglas took Labour down a radical free-market path, disentangling the country from a thicket of regulations and subsidies that were strangling the economy into near-bankruptcy. Then Lange decided the country needed a “cup of tea and a lie down”. Douglas did not and the Fourth Labour Government tore itself apart. Lange quit as Prime Minister, Douglas was sidelined and the Government drifted to a crushing defeat.

Jim Bolger, who led the new National Government, soon fell out with his Douglas-inclined Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson, and she dropped by the wayside. His Government waddled on for three terms, the last two years without him as leader because Jenny Shipley decided she was the only one who could avert an electoral collapse in 1999. She did not.

Helen Clark and Labour returned for a surprisingly comfortable nine years, but eventually the fickle electorate got bored and National’s John Key took power. His Government also lasted three easy terms, but with a year to go in the last term, he quit and Bill English took over as Prime Minister, hoping to win the next election against a dull and disorganised Labour opposition. National did win the most votes, but the vagaries of MMP allowed Labour’s vibrant new leader, Jacinda Ardern, to form a government with New Zealand First and the Greens.

And that is where we are now. The lesson of the past 45 years is that governments ride triumphantly into power, but all too often, internal arguments rip them apart. Only Clark and Key managed to maintain the discipline required with their caucus and voters.

Things look rosy now for the Ardern Government, but history tells us it can turn to custard without that discipline and focus. Ardern is the ideal face for the new Government, popular, charismatic, collegial in style. Behind her stand Grant Robertson and David Parker, the hard-working “tight forwards” of her Cabinet. It looks shakier when you turn your attention beyond Labour to the far looser NZ First and the Greens.

The lesson of the Kirk/Rowling Government is not to do too little; Lange showed us it is possible for a government to do too much, too fast. Ardern would be wise to adopt the Clark and Key approach of stable, centralised leadership. Otherwise, she may find herself in 2020 whistling alone in a deserted corridor.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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