If Clark can lead her Labour party to victory on Sept. 17 in a general election, she will be free to continue the frugal economic management and progressive social makeover that have been the hallmark of her winning ways since 1999. After the country's stagnation in the '90s, and the reform shocks of the preceding decade, the Clark era has been a prosperous one. "There is no mood for radical change in our country," Clark declared at her campaign launch in Auckland on Aug. 21. Economic output has grown by an average of 4% a year; the country's unemployment rate has dropped to 3.7%, the lowest in the developed world. Dairy, meat and horticultural export earnings have soared. House prices have boomed, encouraging property owners to borrow - to buy consumer goods or even bigger homes. Since 9/11, the isolated country has been seen as a safe haven; expats have returned home and the spectacular vistas of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise have attracted tourists. Clark has worked relentlessly to rebrand the nation - to itself and the world - as "clean and green," creative, energetic and independent.
In 2002, Labour won two votes for every one that its traditional rival National was able to secure. Amid national affluence, and with such a large electoral buffer, Clark should be unassailable. But she's not. Far from it. Labour finds itself neck and neck in the polls in a two-horse race with a revitalized National, under the leadership of political novice Don Brash, a former governor of the country's Reserve Bank. Are people ungrateful, or has Labour reached its use-by date? It may simply be that New Zealand politics is becoming a more unpredictable game or, as Deputy P.M. and Finance Minister Michael Cullen argues, that Kiwis now expect a larger pay-off after the hard years of restructuring: "'Where's my dividend?' people say. Well, we need to move along a steady path and not blow it all at once. We will target our Budget surplus toward spending on public services and investment in infrastructure."
Cullen has been sounding like a scrooge during the campaign, trying to protect the surplus at all costs, worrying about rising oil prices, a strong dollar and a scary current account deficit. But Brash is feeding the instinct for immediate gratification, although he is using the language of incentive, hard work and aspiration to sell it. National is promising large tax cuts across the board, with a plan that would see 85% of taxpayers charged a marginal rate of 19¢ in the dollar or less. Despite the output and jobs growth, real earnings have remained flat for the past five years. It's opened up a 30% income gap between Australia and New Zealand - and sent a large number of skilled Kiwis across the Tasman for good in search of career opportunities and higher earnings.