Dunedin Labour MP David Clark’s career was going nowhere fast in July 2020.
Having just resigned as health minister for various ill-judged excursions during the Covid-19 lockdown, but he was afforded a second chance following the general election later that year, when his caucus colleagues voted that he should be returned to Cabinet.
His allocated portfolios, such as statistics, commerce and consumer affairs are hardly weighty ones, but Dr Clark has done his best in the following two years to make them impactful.
The market studies initiative, instituted before Dr Clark took over the commerce role, has proven to be beneficial in that respect.
He inherited implementation of the market study on the fuel sector, and the study on supermarkets was a Labour election pledge so, again, his role was to make it sound meaningful.
While the associated legislation has yet to pass the House, Dr Clark has been forceful in his rhetoric that the Government expected meaningful reform in the sector and there has been some movement by the supermarket duopoly, such as price freezes on staple products.
It is notable that in a month replete with bad news for the Government that both Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson have been keen to spruik the supermarket sector reforms as an example of action to address the cost of living.
The building supplies market study was announced by Dr Clark a year ago and has taken on much greater importance since, due to the insidious rise of inflation, particularly for construction staples such as plaster board, and especially since the government is one of the largest customers when it comes to commissioning building projects.
With the ink barely dry on the Commerce Commission’s report and the Government yet to draft its response Dr Clark can already claim his first win after Winstone Wallboards announced it would do away with retail rebates for bulk purchasers, a device the commission regards as a barrier to competing suppliers of alternative products.
He will be hoping for further concrete examples of progress.
Market studies in themselves have no coercive force, as critics point out, but Dr Clark can argue that gains from moral persuasion are not to be sneezed at and that regulation — as he has threatened for the supermarket sector — remains a big stick available to him if talking softly fails to effect effective change.
Expect Dr Clark to launch several more market studies next year: banking and insurance are in Labour’s sights and promising to crack down on those sectors should provide plenty of material for fiery election campaign speeches.
Should he do that convincingly, and also deliver the planned Census for 2023 without the bungles which dogged the 2018 edition, and Dr Clark may well have restored his reputation as a safe pair of hands.