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Clark's Negotiating Skills Will Be Tested

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

If Labour is in a position to put a government together after the election, Helen Clark is going to need all her skills to do it. PETER WILSON of NZPA looks at the challenges ahead for Labour's leader.

Wellington, Nov 5 NZPA - After three terms in office and nine years as prime minister, some people around Parliament were wondering whether Helen Clark wanted a fourth term badly enough to really fight for it.

They aren't wondering any more. She is campaigning as hard this time as she ever has and if she knows the odds are against her she isn't showing it.

National is leading Labour in the polls and Clark is up against what every third term government has to face -- an attitude of "it's time for a change" regardless of track records, policies or personnel.

If she does make it, and that's still a big `if' even though Labour has started to catch up, Clark will set about doing what she does best.

That's negotiating deals with minor parties so she has a stable government that will last for the next three years.

Labour's only coalition partner for the last three years has been the Progressive Party, with its leader and only MP Jim Anderton holding a senior cabinet position.

She worked out support agreements with New Zealand First and United Future under unprecedented conditions which saw Winston Peters become foreign minister and Peter Dunne revenue minister, both outside cabinet.

Neither of those parties were part of the Government and critics said it couldn't work. National was convinced that having a foreign minister who didn't sit at the cabinet table was a ludicrous arrangement.

It did work and the government formed after the last election was the most stable since MMP was introduced in 1996.

That was helped partly by another unprecedented piece of political engineering.

Clark negotiated a co-operation arrangement with the Greens, and co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons became the Government's spokeswoman on energy efficiency.

National thought this was even more ridiculous because the Greens were an opposition party.

She won't be dealing with United Future after this election because Dunne has turned his back on Labour and wants to be part of a National-led government.

Having one less to negotiate with doesn't make it easier. This is going to be the toughest test yet of Clark's political skills.

Anderton will be there again, he isn't thinking of going anywhere else. The Greens won't support National but they're not just going to rubber stamp a deal with Labour.

Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says there will be policy negotiations and the Greens are likely to drive hard bargains on the environment.

Clark will almost certainly need New Zealand First as well as the Greens, and in 2005 the Greens were shut out because NZ First refused to work with them.

But NZ First's chances of getting back into Parliament look bleak.

Its leader, Winston Peters, is trailing National's Simon Bridges in Tauranga and the party is well below the 5% it needs to win seats without holding an electorate.

If NZ First isn't in the frame on election night, it will be a straight race between Labour and the Greens, and National and ACT.

Current polling shows National would win that race, the question is whether it wins by enough to avoid putting the Maori Party in a position where it holds the balance of power.

If the Maori Party does hold the balance, Clark's negotiating skills will again be needed.

She would have to persuade its MPs to support Labour, while National's John Key would be doing the same thing for National.

Clark is much more experienced than Key at this sort of game, and a main reason for that is she knows the territory so well.

She's been in Parliament since 1981 when she was elected to represent Mt Albert, which she still does.

When Labour was re-elected in 1987 she went into cabinet and held conservation, housing, labour and health.

She was deputy prime minister from August 1989 to October 1990, when Labour lost power.

Labour was smashed in that election, but Clark rebuilt it and took it back into office in 1999. Three terms later, she wants a fourth.


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