Monday, March 17, 2008


Anyone who has ever watched the Melbourne Cup run
at the Flemington racecourse knows that the home
straight is exceptionally long—at 1200 metres, or six
furlongs, one of the longest in horse-racing anywhere.
It seems to go on forever as the horses keep pounding
along it. You can’t believe that the winning post is
taking so long to arrive. It’s a true test of stayers: no
horse can be sure of having won till it crosses the line,
such is the toll taken on the field in that straight.

Right now, in March, the New Zealand general election
scheduled for no later than November this year seems
to me like the finish line at Flemington. The major
parties may feel they have entered the home straight
already, after starting the year in campaign mode, but
there’s a long, long way to go yet. For that reason, if no
other, the National Party's apparently commanding
opinion poll lead is illusory. This extended campaign
will, I think, go all the way down to the wire; and as far
as leadership goes, all the evidence so far suggests that
Helen Clark is more of a stayer than John Key.

Key strikes me as a leader who has yet to find his level—
yet to find, that is to say, the public persona with which
he feels most comfortable and consistent. He seems to
be trying various personas on at the moment; and none
quite works. Clark learnt a long time ago to be one thing
and to be it consistently. Sure, it has brought her the
reputation of being dour and humourless, but it has won
her three elections. One of her predecessors, Bill Rowling,
lost three elections, not least because he never seemed to
be one thing or the other.

It helps, of course, that Clark has a political philosophy
she believes in and tries to abides by, notwithstanding the
inevitable compromises any politician must make. With
Key, it's hard to discern exactly what his abiding principles
are; if he has any, he certainly hasn’t been in a hurry to
show the rest of us. Such opacity can be a strength in the
short run but a weakness in the long run. Here ends the
horse-racing metaphor.

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