Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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Helen Clark's Years (New Zealand Herald)


Helen Clark's nine years as Prime Minister came near to Peter Fraser's Labour record, 1940-49. He headed a government that completed many of the details of the early welfare state. Clark argued she was his successor when her activist government poured money into public health and education, and pushed its regulating nose into telecommunications, breaking up Telecom, controlling electricity, and stopping Auckland Airport's sale, destroying much of the Mum and Pop share values in the process. But times have changed since the 1940s. For decades the evidence has been showing us that over-regulation slows growth. Just pouring money into health doesn't provide more operations in hospitals or better care. Much goes into bureaucracy. Education suffered similarly. Fraser stressed literacy and numeracy. His government introduced School Certificate and national standards for tertiary entry. These qualifications helped working folk, providing a ladder out of poverty. NCEA has not won their level of acceptance. Clark's government presided over a steady decline in educational standards in poorer suburbs. The re-introduction of school zoning ghettoizes kids in the underclass, while play-way education that entertains kids with "cultural studies", rather than educating them in the basics, means that many leave school ill-equipped to escape the poverty treadmill.

Peter Fraser's Labour worshipped the work ethic. He abhorred those who chose not to work. However, by hanging grimly to her 1970s welfare agendas, Helen Clark nudged only a tiny percentage of long-term beneficiaries into work at a time when the nation's income was never better. Instead, the third generation of kids born into poverty continued to slug it out in dysfunctional homes where family violence and underachievement are endemic. The crisis in Maoridom mushroomed under Clark's watch. Some of the most gut-wrenching crimes in our history can indirectly be laid at the door of a ministry that refused to get to grips with the anti-social incentives that long-term welfare gives to trapped families. It now looks as if the National Party and its unprecedented deal with the Maori Party, that understands the corrosive effects of dependency, will deal at last with Maori problems. Let's hope. Where was Labour when ingenuity was required?

Helen Clark is formidable. She ruled her caucus with a rod of iron. She could frighten, or charm most journalists into submission. On foreign policy she played a shrewd hand. She got nine years in office. But continued economic growth, that does so much to lift the living standards of Labour voters, trickled through her fingers. A growth rate above the OECD average in 2000 slipped in 2004 to below average, long before the world economic crisis. Huge productivity gains from the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s collapsed. New Zealand slipped a couple of notches on the OECD ladder, while the flow of skilled emigrants, desperately needed at home, turned into a torrent. What was Clark's government about except social engineering? It certainly wasn't "the economy, stupid". It was more about a fuzzy "inclusiveness" (except for those imprisoned in the underclass), anti-smacking and gay marriage. Debatable at best, they were incapable of restoring the country to the world standing it enjoyed in Fraser's day.