Can Clark Fly Solo?

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Alow-rise sprawl to the east of the airport, South Auckland is home to a mostly Maori urban underclass-and usually a no-go zone for outsiders. But Helen Clark had business there. Alighting from her car at the Mangere East Family Services Centre last week, she stepped forward briskly. In the kindergarten, there was Shana's third-birthday party to attend-and yet another photo opportunity to manage. After mingling deftly with children and carers, Clark exited as decisively as she'd entered. "We'll let you get on with it," she said.

When she called an early election for July 27, Clark was confident New Zealand's voters would say the same to her. With her popularity soaring and new Opposition Leader Bill English barely registering on the popular radar, the question was not so much whether Clark's Labour party would get back in, but whether-as polls suggest-it might form the first majority government since the power-sharing MMP (mixed-member proportional) electoral system was introduced in 1996. "They've had it all their own way," says New Zealand First leader Winston Peters with a customary touch of cheek-"in the longest-running honeymoon in the history of democracy in the western world."

Hardly. But after two and a half years of minority Labour rule, characterized by strong Budget surpluses and spending on health, education and social services, New Zealand is basking in low unemployment, an improved balance of payments deficit and solid economic growth. "Because they've had this golden weather of [high] export prices, there's a sense in which some voters think they can indulge themselves a bit," says English, the fresh-faced leader of the National party. "This is a country that's like someone sleeping off a hangover." After the tumultuous social and economic reforms of the '80s and '90s, the last thing New Zealanders seem to want is change.

Not surprisingly, Clark is promising them "steady, stable, predictable" government. But the campaign-now into its final week-has been anything but. The first bump came with "Paintergate," when it was revealed that Clark had signed for a charity auction art works she hadn't painted, which were later destroyed by her staff. A more serious knock to Labour's prospects of governing alone-and its leader's public composure-arrived with the July 10 publication of investigative journalist Nicky Hager's book Seeds of Distrust, which alleged that the government had secretly sanctioned the planting and harvesting of genetically engineered corn imported from the U.S. in October 2000. (It is illegal to release GE organisms into the New Zealand environment until a moratorium is lifted in October 2003.)

"Corngate," as the scandal became known, quickly descended into scientific semantics. Hager claimed the government had bowed to big-business pressure in allowing the crops to remain in the ground after initial testing showed signs of GE contamination; the government wheeled out its own environmental experts to assert that the test data had been inconclusive. "The total sum of it was there was a false alarm," Clark told Time, "and when the government heard that there might be the possibility of contamination it said, ‘If proved, every seed will be destroyed and every plant will be uprooted.' But there was no evidence of contamination. Ergo, no story. So there was nothing to cover up."

Corngate made GE the wild card of the campaign. "This is the most serious issue that we face in New Zealand today," said activist actor Sam Neill at this month's launch of an environmentalist lobby group. While opinion polls rate health, education and crime higher, GE could be pivotal to the deal-making that has become a feature of MMP politics. In the lead-up to the election, the power-sharing Greens threatened to boycott any government that ends the GE moratorium next year. Clark, who backs the Royal Commission's recommendation to move cautiously on GE, has accused the party of holding the country to ransom. "It's a coalition breaker," says Jeanette Fitzsimons, co-leader of the Greens, whose popularity has doubled in recent weeks, to around 11%. "People know that this issue has the potential to decide who governs the country."

In New Zealand, which derives half its export earnings from the land, the question of GE crops threatens to divide the nation-and families. National leader English, a sometime sheep farmer, admits to disagreeing with his anti-GE mother on the issue. "With an economy based on biological production," he says, "you have to have access to the technologies that are enhancing productivity." The Greens' call for a GE-free New Zealand is a yearning for the past, English says: "New Zealand's always had a vein of Utopian nostalgia."

But with a thriving tourist industry tagged to "100% pure," the call is also based on economics. "GE-free, natural and clean-even if it's not necessarily a true reflection of reality-is certainly an image we trade on," says GE-Free New Zealand spokesman and Greens candidate Jon Carapiet.

While GE has captured media attention, it has yet to engage New Zealand voters. National's English calls it "a pretty middle-class kind of issue. In New Zealand, there are far too many people living on low incomes. The best hope they have is a fast-growing economy." But English's antidote of small-business tax cuts, paying out New Zealand's striking secondary-school teachers, and increasing the non-parole period for those convicted of serious crimes hasn't distinguished itself strongly enough from Labour's program. Picking up the slack has been Peters, whose New Zealand First party helped the Nationals form government in '96 before imploding. Campaigning on an anti-immigration, -crime and -Waitangi Treaty ticket, he has tripled his popular support to around 8%. The GE debate is a sideshow, Peters says. "By election day, the voters will all be back dealing with the real issues."

The Prime Minister must be hoping he's right. Over a cup of tea at the family services center in South Auckland last Tuesday, she seemed content to rest on her government's laurels, pointing to 13-year lows in unemployment and crime. "When all the key issues that the public most cares about-the economy, jobs, health, education, pensions and crime-are largely under control and well managed, the peripheral issues come into play," she told Time.

With a dip in Labour's support-to 46% last week, still more than 20 points ahead of National-Clark was still three seats short of her target. "A majority government is absolutely within the prospect," she said with customary conviction, "and we're going to push very hard at it." If she and Labour don't succeed, the "peripheral issue" of GE crops could soon be at the center of the table.

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