The first country to give women the vote, in 1893, has ended the century with an election involving two women leading the major parties and with its first elected female Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister-elect of New Zealand, Ms Helen Clark, waited some time after the Prime Minister, Mrs Jenny Shipley, had conceded victory before leaving her house to face the party faithful and the media to claim victory. This cautiousness might be a motif for the new Labour administration. Three years ago, Ms Clark had virtually assumed victory, and then had it claimed for her by a biased media, before being uncrowned by a deal between the National and New Zealand First parties. This time Ms Clark waited until most of the big polling booths were counted, even after her opponent's concession, before emerging into the spotlight.
The challenge for the new prime minister is to emulate the pragmatic but bold liberalism of the administration of Richard Seddon at the turn of the century, rather than the holier-than-thou and interfering style of Norman Kirk, whose early 1970s administration was praised by the Deputy Prime Minister-elect, Jim Anderton, ominously, as the only representative government in New Zealand in the past 25 years.
Ms Clark's victory speech reflected her cautious and dour style. There was a particular reference to Maori, Island and other groups. But there was no vision expressed in her statement. Labour campaigned essentially on a series of lightweight promises on a pledge card, a gimmick borrowed from Tony Blair's election campaign. But Ms Clark is no Blair, full of ideas, positivism and upbeat rhetoric. New Zealand Labour is, at its best, 'Newish Labour' rather than 'New Labour'. Most of its important policies are negative rather than positive.
The Education Review Office, for instance, is to be abolished and with it a determination to maintain rigour in the education system. The Employment Contracts Act is to be abolished, a decision that could unleash the negativity of trade union power. The Accident Compensation Commission is to be re-nationalised and the spokesman on Maori affairs, Mr Samuel Dover, talked about his new ministry of 'treaty settlements' rather than the old ministry of 'treaty negotiations'.
Wellington may be New Zealand's capital, but Auckland is the capital city of Polynesia and the population centre. Labour's victory, based as it is on Maori and leftish urban interest groups swinging back to their old party, was a victory for the greater Auckland area, particularly, over rural New Zealand. Auckland generates the goods and services consumed within New Zealand. But the rest of the country creates the exports sold to the world. This tension between an export-led economic revival and a consumption-led one will be a major challenge for the new Government.
The likelihood is that Mr Winston Peters and the NZ First party will be in the new Parliament. The Greens, though, appear unlikely to win seats and be part of the new government. Whatever happens, however, a Left coalition of Labour and the Alliance will have the numbers to form a Government. The Alliance leader, Mr Anderton, a former Labour Party president, is unashamedly Old Labour. His party does
not have the answers for the reformed New Zealand economy, despite Mr Anderton's dogmatic certainty that he knows best. Mr Anderton, too, has a history of being politically disruptive. How he is managed and whether he is prepared to allow his party only a minor role in the Coalition will hold the key as to whether Ms Clark becomes a successful Prime Minister.