Gillard: Helen Clark redux?

‘This is like déjà vu all over again.’ That’s a line coined by the American baseball manager Yogi Berra. And it sort of sums up what I fear may be true of Julia Gillard.

Let me explain. My family and I lived for 11 years in Dunedin, in New Zealand. We moved from there to here a little under six years ago. And during those years in New Zealand who was the Kiwi politician that most reminds anyone of Julia Gillard? It’s got to be Helen Clark.

Now Clark was not the first female Prime Minister of New Zealand. That honour went to Jenny Shipley, from the right of centre National Party, who just like Gillard was imposed on the nation when caucus dumped Jim Bolger and put her in as the new Prime Minister.

But come the first election she had to fight in 1999 and Shipley was out, defeated by the Labour Party’s Helen Clark. And Clark went on to be Prime Minister for 9 years, winning three elections in total until she lost in 2008 and resigned the leadership.

Now Clark came from the left wing of the New Zealand Labour Party. She came in decrying liberalised labour laws, which she promptly changed. She was childless. She was not in the least religious (and, note, I say that as an atheist myself). She had been active in student politics, beginning on the farther left end of the Labour spectrum. And she never showed any real attachment to the market and to private sector, market-based solutions to perceived problems.

Sound at all familiar? Julia Gillard is from the Victorian left of the party. She was immersed in student politics, with ties to the Socialist Forum. She’s childless. She’s a non-practising Baptist who chose to be affirmed rather than sworn into her new office. She’s much more old Labor than any sort of Tony Blairesque new Labor type. Oh, and she’s not in the least convincing when it comes to espousing market-based solutions to problems.

‘Big government’ and ‘Julia Gillard’ are not phrases that you find hard to utter in the same sentence.

So there are certainly striking similarities between these two antipodean Prime Ministerial women from the leftwards end of the political spectrum.

Of course there are some pretty glaring differences too. Gillard is witty and likeable. With Clark, sure she inspired political loyalty of a dogged and immense sort, but she wasn’t really likeable. And I never heard her described as witty or funny. Smart? No doubt about it. But certainly not a person you’d look forward to spending an evening meal with, not unless you wanted to talk New Zealand Labour party politics.

So what happened to Clark? As I said she won three elections, then got trounced in the fourth. She was popular to start, not least because she took over from a centre-right government that had fixed the government finances. And Clark was a big spender. This made her immediately popular, and it lasted for quite a while. But the shine had well and truly worn off by the 2005 election, which she just barely won.

By 2008 government spending as a percentage of GDP had increased in New Zealand to Swedish levels, possibly worse. And productivity had slumped, what with the expansion of ever bigger government and more and more taxes to try to balance the books.

Clark had asked, early on, to be judged by her government’s ability to narrow the wealth and productivity gap with Australia, to try to stem the flood of talented Kiwis across the Tasman. On her own chosen criteria she was a failure, a big failure.

Here’s my fear when it comes to our new Prime Minister Gillard. I fear she’s the same sort of big spending, high taxing, ratcheting-up of government sort of person as Clark. Sure, she may well try to balance the government books. But then Clark did that too.

But there’s a significant difference between fiscal balance where you tax, tax, tax to get there and government spending ends up accounting for over 50 percent of GDP, as compared to the sort of balance you get by keeping spending much more under control, with government spending kept under 40 percent of GDP, well under.

I look at Gillard and I see Clark on this one. I think she’s a spender, a big spender. I won’t be in the least surprised if this makes her popular in the short to medium term. I’m convinced it will hurt the country though, and her popularity, in the longer term. It’ll be déjà vu all over again for me.

Of course Clark was lucky enough to face an insipid, enervated opposition offering no real alternatives to her centre left mantras until her third election. Once presented with a strong set of alternatives the voters basically split down the middle. They soon wished they’d gone the other way so that by the fourth election she was toast.

The lesson when facing this sort of big spending type of Labor government, and we saw it too in the United Kingdom, is that if the centre right party concedes that this sort of spending is a good idea in principle, it will lose. If both parties are going to tax and spend, you might as well have the one that actually stands for it, believes in it, and indeed revels in it.

To win, to beat the big spenders, you need to offer the voters the lower taxing, smaller government alternative that carries with it the implicit message of rewards for hard work and humility that government in fact cannot do everything or solve every problem.

So there are grounds for thinking Gillard will follow on and trace out the same sort of political arc that Helen Clark followed. And grounds for thinking she won’t. No one can know for sure. Prediction is always a bit of a mug’s game.

As Yogi Berra also said, ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’.

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