This post follows on from an earlier one entitled Looking back on the Third Way, which examined the ‘third way’ strand of progressive thinking through the writings of its leading theorist Anthony Giddens.
The Fifth Labour Government in New Zealand led by Helen Clark came to power a few years after Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ in the United Kingdom. Can it also be seen as a ‘third way’ administration?
And if so, what did this mean in the New Zealand context, particularly with regard to the role of the state and ideas about the desirability and efficacy of state action?
The two leading figures of the Fifth Labour Government were Helen Clark and her deputy Michael Cullen. But only limited guidance can be gleaned from their public statements and writings.
This reflects the rather pragmatic and practical style that their government adopted. Veteran political commentator Colin James has written extensively over the years about the intellectual influences of successive governments including this one. His columns over the 2000s repeatedly trace its leaders reaching tentatively towards an overarching project or distinctive philosophy, only to pull back again.
“They are not a theoretical lot, even the boss herself with her political scientist’s training.” (May 2001)
“Clark and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen have shied away from visions and proclamations of philosophy. Attempts to engage them in that sort of conversation don’t often get far.” (February 2003)
Perhaps most strikingly of all, he quotes “one Labour grandee” as saying on the topic of ‘vision’, “Hitler had one of those and look where it got the world”. (May 2005)
Even so, Helen Clark did from time to time describe her government in ‘third way’ terms, at least at first. (Michael Cullen never did, so far as I could find.)
In 2000 she said to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce that hers was “a classic Third Way government – committed to a market economy, but not to a market society”, and told that year’s Labour Party conference that their’s was “a third way approach” to dealing with the issues of how to adapt to globalisation and new technologies. In a 2002 address at the London School of Economics, she explicitly linked her government to the writings of Anthony Giddens.
Two of her most specific explanations however came in speeches to the Local Government Conference in 2000 and the annual conference of the Meat Industry Association in 2001, respectively:
our third way government is seeking a new role, built around that concept of partnership, acknowledging the limitations of government, but also accepting the responsibility of leading, facilitating, enabling, brokering, and funding where appropriate to get results. (July 2000)
Labour takes the view that neither the excesses of hands-on nor of hands-off have served New Zealand well. That’s why we have articulated a third way for the state in the economy. That third way sees government as a leader, a facilitator, a co-ordinator, a broker, and a partner. It is a strategic role which also sees us apply funding where there is a public interest and/or market failure. (September 2001)
These statements are certainly consistent with Giddens’ conception of the ‘third way’. But to get further elaboration, including a sense of any specific New Zealand dimension to the ‘third way’, we will need to look elsewhere.
In part two of this discussion I will turn to the articulation of New Zealand’s ‘third way’ put forward by Steve Maharey, who Colin James at the time described as “Cabinet’s thinker” and Labour’s “most theoretical minister” (February 2005). Then, in part three I’ll look at the 1999 publication The New Politics: a Third Way for New Zealand.
- Colin James, “Freedom” and “security” (speech to National party northern region conference, May 2001)
- Colin James, Labour’s challenge: to project a Labour vision (February 2003)
- Colin James, Cabinet’s thinker gradually wins over the doubters (February 2005)
- Colin James, Helen Clark and the ‘vision thing’. Can this be for real? (April 2005)
- Helen Clark, Speech to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce (June 2000)
- Helen Clark, Speech to Local Government Conference (July 2000)
- Helen Clark, Address to Labour Party Conference 2000 (November 2000)
- Helen Clark, Speech to Meat Industry Association annual conference (September 2001)
- Helen Clark, Prime Minister’s Address to the London School of Economics (February 2002)