In 1972, Helen Clark was a first-time voter and attended the then Labour Party leader – and soon to be elected prime minister – Norman Kirk’s Auckland election address.
It was 27 years before she found herself in his situation: this time she was on the platform. She found similarities.
In 1972, New Zealand was “drowning” under the weight of a long-serving National Party government.
In 1999, the then National government was in a shambles, “propped up by a ragtag mob of defectors and opportunists”.
The 1972 Miss Clark was converted to Norman Kirk’s attractive vision for New Zealand, but she was also a feminist and it was to that cause that she, along with others such as Margaret Wilson, later to become party president and Speaker, was first aligned.
Most of her political activity in those years involved pushing the misogynistic Labour Party towards a broader canvass, and to interest it in affairs beyond these shores, especially the socialist revolutions then succeeding – and failing – in the Americas.
She formed firm and independent views on foreign policy early – marching against New Zealand involvement in the Vietnam War, for example – and this was reflected many years later when she refused, despite pressure from Australia, Britain and the United States, to send troops to the war in Iraq; these and other policies drew international attention to New Zealand, and a great deal of admiration.
She began to be noted in the party and by 1981, the year of the Springbok tour, was elected to Parliament. In 1984, after the snap election, Labour found itself in power with Roger Douglas imposing market reforms on the economy. Miss Clark became a minister in the January 1989 Cabinet reshuffle, taking conservation and health, and deputy prime minister to Geoffrey Palmer eight months later when David Lange resigned.
In 1993, now with Labour in opposition and much divided, she toppled Mike Moore, showing to her caucus and a wider public the steel she had concealed. This became even more evident three years later when senior MPs, led by Michael Cullen, tried unsuccessfully to talk her into resigning, given Labour’s disastrous polling. Yet by 1999, undoubtedly helped by the collapse of support for the National Party coalition, she was able to lead her party to victory.
She has won more elections than any other Labour prime minister, is the second longest-serving Labour prime minister, is the longest-serving Labour leader and the first woman to lead a New Zealand political party, and was New Zealand’s first elected woman prime minister. By most measures, she has also been a most able manager of the various governments she has led, second only to Peter Fraser in terms of ability, and equally as tough.
Her transformation by 1999 from a somewhat distant bluestocking into a fashionably dressed, highly visible and accessible, and popular political figure emphasises her ruthless determination to do whatever was necessary to gain power so that, as she constantly put it, “ordinary people” could “reclaim our country”.
Miss Clark was smart enough, too, to surround herself with ability and her intellectual peers while never allowing for any misunderstanding as to who was in charge. In Michael Cullen, she had a competent and eventually fully loyal finance minister; in Pete Hodgson she had a trustworthy strategist; in Steven Maharey and Trevor Mallard she had a social democratic theorist and a committed loyalist to keep the troops in line.
Her staff appointments were exceptional public servants, and her close female friends people on whom she could rely, and in whose company she could relax. Managing a Labour Party caucus – never easy – was compounded by having also to manage successive coalitions, with all the implied ego conflicts and concessions.
That she succeeded for three terms is tribute to her hard-learned political management skills, her insistence on inclusiveness. Her chief weakness – economic matters – was exposed when she failed to take steps sufficiently early to halt the alarming housing debt bubble, and to direct Dr Cullen to return the surpluses from whence they came earlier than he did.
But it was also obvious in the past year or so that Miss Clark, faced with a new Opposition leader representing a younger generation, had also for the first time relinquished control of the political agenda.
To the extent that she is, at heart, relatively conservative (with a small “c”) and a gradualist, the appearance of a new boy on the block with fresh ideas proved one distraction too many for a controlling prime minister who was, in all manner of things, “the government”.
Being a woman leader in a country still largely in the adolescent stages of social and gender equality was never easy, and Miss Clark has had to suffer more than her fair share of rumours and innuendo, almost all of which she ignored unless it involved those closest to her.
Under her leadership, women were appointed to the nation’s top public roles, and gender equality as a rational process in the workplace and as an example to younger aspirants, made progress. Her personal stewardship of the arts – the first by any prime minister – showed to the world that New Zealand is much more than No 8 wire, All Black rugby, pretty scenery, beer, and millions of sheep.
With Dr Cullen working the numbers, Miss Clark succeeded in reintroducing social equity to the nation and making progress in improving the lot of those who used to be called in the 1990s “the underclass”.
She can claim to have brought New Zealand closer to social democratic ideals, and she has set a very high bar for her successors.
SV asks, what of the legacy our past leaders have left Fiji and her people?