The New Zealand public doesn’t hear much from Helen Clark these days. Ensconced in her United Nations career in New York, she’s generally not talking to the media about anything to do with her time as Prime Minister (‘I never talk about that’,’ That’s for others to judge’). So it’s good to see the Sunday Star-Times running a piece today on Clark in their Sunday magazine (which is normally reserved for much more lightweight lifestyle features). ‘View from the top’ (or, the alternative title, ‘Helen in New York’) is written by freelance journalist Sam Eichblatt who went and interviewed Clark at the UN in New York. She also rung me for some comments about Helen Clark’s time as prime minister, which have ended up being published, so this blog post reproduces those comments, expands on some of the points I made, and also highlights some of the other observations made in the article. [Read more below].
The article starts with this very interesting ‘class struggle’ observation from Clark about the New York working class versus the middle and ruling classes:
Chatting lightly about her view of the Pepsi-Cola sign across the East River on the Queens waterfront, Helen Clark uses the word “pluty”…. “Pluty”: shorthand for “plutocracy”, or rule by the rich. The Pepsi sign was erected in 1933 above the company’s bottling plant on the solidly working-class east side of the river, as a defiant two-fingered salute to the upper-middle-class apartments that overlooked it from Manhattan – in other words, the pluty side of the river. In her corner office on the 21st floor of 1 UN Plaza, Clark chuckles a little as she says that. It’s not hard to see which side of the river she’d be on, given half a choice.
Such a paragraph nicely sums up Helen Clark’s politics: there’s the pretence to be siding with the working class, but meanwhile she’s sitting amongst the bourgeoisie and ‘rulers of the world’, helping them maintain the state of the world. Or is that too harsh? Certainly, to read further about Clark’s million-dollar office views – ‘It’s a great office…. I dare say it rivals the view from the ninth floor of the Beehive’ – the whole conversation reminds me of one of the great lines from a Mike Lee film, ‘Career Girls’, when during a real estate tour of an expensive high-rise condo, the working class Hannah looks out the window and says, 'I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here.'
In the article we learn lots of trivial yet significant things about Clark in New York. From the mundane (‘But I do miss the coffee’… ‘New Zealand makes the best coffee in the world’) through to her continuing political communications talents (Her Facebook page is thriving according to Clark: ‘The page has gone crazy recently. There’s a huge volume of friend requests coming through.”). In fact in her UN job, Clark has her own PR woman, ‘Christina’, who gushes about Clark’s PR skills: ‘She’s a real professional’. And we read about some familiar personal attributes: ‘The direct stare, the impassive delivery’.
But the article is mostly a reflection upon Helen Clark’s political contribution to New Zealand and what legacy she has left us. In this regard, the journalist talks to broadcaster Graeme Hill (who concentrates on Clark’s progressive, moral stances); Denis Welch (‘From the outset, she was an internationalist – she took a keen interest in foreign affairs and travelled widely. She built up a good network during her years as a politician’); Marilyn Waring (‘Clark’s legacy is the strength of New Zealand’s foreign and defence policies, and developments in the health sector, especially the anti-smoking bill’); and myself.
Below is the section of Sunday Star Times article that quotes me:
To those who see her as a lefty Camp Mother ushering in a new Age of Aquarius for New Zealand, political scientist and blogger Dr Bryce Edwards of Otago University offers a contrasting view. “If anything, Clark’s legacy is that she managed to turn the Labour Party into a better conservative party than the National Party,” he says. “Her government barely changed the neoliberal economic framework she inherited from National.” He’s also sceptical of the idea that she caused lasting change: “Clark never attempted to be a ‘great’ politician. She sought to be a ‘successful’ politician, which is not the same thing,” he says. “She was never a ‘conviction politician’ in the same way that Thatcher, Michael Joseph Savage and even George W Bush were. She never had any bold intentions to fundamentally change this country, but instead just improve it and stop other politicians making it worse. To do that she needed to win power and retain it. She was remarkably successful at doing so.” Edwards believes the times Clark followed her heart rather than her head, were the times she lost voter support. “The things that come to mind are the anti-smacking bill and civil unions, which, while not negative in itself, occurred alongside other reforms that could be classed as social engineering.” This, says Edwards, lent credibility to the opposition’s argument that Labour was overly focused on a programme of political correctness. “When she did what she believed to be the “right” thing to do, she lost [her] sense of the popular thing to do. It painted Labour as being concerned with nanny-state, marginal issues – which were cumulatively voter poison. History will remember her government as being one of social and liberal reforms – and that’s why it ultimately lost power.”
I can’t remember the exact questions I was asked by the journalist Sam Eichblatt, but they were along the lines of: ‘What was Helen Clark's greatest moment as a politician?’; ‘What was her lowest point?’; ‘What would you describe as her legacy to the country?’
So to, elaborate on some of these answers, I think it's rather difficult to think of what Helen Clark's greatest moment as a politician might be - not because she wasn't an effective and successful prime minister - but because she never managed to do anything truly great. As I said to the Sunday Star-Times journalist, the reality is that Helen Clark never attempted to be a "great politician" in the sense of how we normally think of pivotal political leaders in history - she never heralded in momentus changes or redefined anything significant about New Zealand. She seemed to want to be successful more than anything else. Success is about winning, and about staying on top - which she was very skilled at. She never had any bold and visionary intentions to fundamentally change this country, but instead to just reform society in various ways. And as I said, to do that she needed to keep her hands on power, and she was remarkably successful in doing so - after all she won the leadership of her party off the formidable Mike Moore, and kept it for a record 15 years, and then she lead her party to three victories in general elections.
Part of Helen Clark's success in winning power and retaining it was found in her highly managerial political style. What she lacked in visionary politics and personal charisma, she made up in managerial skills, tactician cunning, and excellent relationship-building capacity. She was a pragmatic politician par excellence, almost always knowing how best to effectively deal with a situation to obtain the most beneficial outcome for her party and government. So this wasn't so much about pursuing a particular policy agenda, but about growing her support base in her party, in the parliament, and in society at large. This often meant that she was incredibly conservative. She was not inclined to push any policies that might endanger her political relationships or popularity. The use of opinion polling, focus groups and all sorts of other political market research was what informed her political decisions and made her so highly successful. So in this sense she was the opposite of a "conviction politician", and was regarded as a particularly cautious and moderate prime minister by her colleagues. Thus, "greatest moments" were not what she sought. There were plenty of times where she could have achieved such moments and thus "won the battle" for a particular political issue, but "lost the war" in terms of staying in office for the maximum time possible.
There were only a few moments when Clark really shifted into "conviction mode" and followed her heart rather than her brain - and these revolve most around issues relating to what people regard as the "nanny state", social liberalism, or "identity politics". In these unique situations, Clark did what she strongly believed to be the "right thing" and uncharacteristically lost a sense of what was the "popular thing" to do. As I said in the article, the things that immediately come to mind are the so-called anti-smacking bill and civil unions.
So in the context of Helen Clark not being a conviction politician but someone who just wants to win, her greatest moments were the ones where she had electoral victories. The 1999 general election was probably the greatest - this was when she managed to lead her party into government (with the support of the Alliance party), ending nine years of National Party rule. It was also the first time that a women had become prime minister in New Zealand as a result of a general election (of course, just two years earlier Jenny Shipley had become the first female prime minister, albeit as a result of a coup d'etat over Jim Bolger). The 2002 general election was also significant - because this was the first election in which Helen Clark and her government were endorsed on the basis of how well they had done in power (and this was the height of both Clark and Labour's popularity). The 2005 general election was also very important, because it was the first time since the 1st Labour Government that a Labour Party had been re-elected for a third term - and what's more Clark and Labour did so for their first time against a truly formidable opponent, as the Don Brash-led National Party actually presented a very credible challenge to Clark and Labour (unlike in 1999 and 2002). Of course, Clark also then won her highly-coveted United Nations position in 2009, which might also be seen as her greatest moment so far.
The other side of the coin for a politician so obsessed with winning power, is obviously losing power. Therefore the 2008 general election defeat was undoubtedly Helen Clark's lowest point in her political career. Apparently at the first caucus meeting following the 2008 defeat, Clark sobbed openly. The loss was extremely tough on someone that had grown accustomed to always winning.
In the longer term, the lowest point of Helen Clark's political career will probably come to be seen as relating to one of her policy decisions as prime minister. Candidates for that include the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the abandonment of the "Closing the Gaps" programme, and "Corngate". In terms of both the Foreshore issue and "Closing the Gaps", the decisions were highly pragmatic and actually went against the ideological inclinations of the Labour leadership. And those decisions played a key role in producing the split between much of Maoridom and the Labour Party, the then creation of the Maori Party, and Labour's loss of most of the Maori electorate seats. That is the political change that is most likely to go down in history as the Clark Labour Government's greatest loss. "Corngate" was less pragmatic, but it was the moment when Helen Clark first lost her composure as prime minister. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of her stance, she immediately lost of a lot of liberal support, and the indignity of her stance towards John Campbell - who she infamously called a "little creep" - was a sign of things to come in terms of her more arrogant debasement of those she disagreed with.
In her nine years as prime minister, Helen Clark did not create any achievements that are likely to be long-lasting. She was a managerial prime minister who sough to make small incremental steps towards policy goals rather than any giant leaps. Her party believes in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change, and Helen Clark was able to manage that approach perfectly. But by trying to be merely "a better manager of the status quo" than your opponents does not lend itself to creating legacies.
As I said in the article, if anything, Helen Clark's legacy is that she managed to turn the Labour Party into a better "conservative party" than the National Party. After all, her Labour Government was incredibly conservative on economic policy. It barely changed the neoliberal economic framework that she inherited from the previous National Government, and Clark's Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen was a fiscal conservative who believed strongly in paying off debt. And even some of the more "radical" policy agendas that the Clark Labour Government introduced - such as Working for Families - were strongly targetted at middle income people (ie "swing voters") rather than the most disadvantaged (in fact the poorest people - beneficiaries - were specifically excluded from the scheme). Most other big-spending policy changes - such as taking interest of student loans, also benefited those voters that traditionally voted National, than Labour was trying to win over.
Possibly the most significant achievement of Helen Clark's 9-year rule was: making MMP work. Not many people realise this now, but Helen Clark was a viciforous opponent of MMP, and campaigned against the change in the electoral system in the early 1990s. Yet, ironically as prime minister she has been responsible for the system gaining a much greater public acceptance. She took power in 1999 from a rag-tag National-led government that had barely made it through the first parliamentary term under MMP, yet under Clark's management, her governments were relatively stable (and only one didn't last full term, with an early election being called in 2002). Clark and Labour worked with a variety of different parliamentary support and coalition partners including the Alliance, the Progressives, the Greens, United Future, and New Zealand First. By all accounts, Helen Clark was extraordinary at keeping all of these forces together. Therefore, in next year's referendum on MMP, if the public chooses to stay with the current system, it will largely be down to Helen Clark and her highly-managerial political style.