Reflections on Helen Clark (PRESS Mainlander)
Helen Clark was a stage one history student when I first met her. Later she worked on my city council and parliamentary campaigns with intelligence, skill, perseverance and ambition. She was a modern, likeable young woman. When she entered Parliament aged 31 in 1981 she had already practised superior organizational talents on her own, and had climbed Labour's organizational ladder. She'd sat on panels choosing several of her later colleagues for parliamentary seats and knew how the system worked.
In an autobiographical piece for Virginia Myers' Head and Shoulders in 1986 Clark revealed more about herself. She admitted to "a very narrow social experience", but disliked many of the values of her argumentative father and his generation. Family disagreements became political battles as she positioned herself at the cutting edge of the women's movement, pushing abortion, child care and easy welfare. Clark joined HART that was fighting against racial rugby tours, and she read the New Statesman and the Guardian Weekly, the same papers she reads today. She says she was stubborn, and she opposed her caucus colleagues when they argued that New Zealand had to undergo major economic change to compete in the world. At points in her 1986 story she seems paranoiac about them. Then, and still, she has little interest in economic fundamentals.
Flick forward to Clark's time as deputy Prime Minister 1989-90 and her own leadership since 1999. Those same characteristics are there, only more so. She has become one of the cleverest political organizers - some would say manipulators - in New Zealand's political history. Promoting Margaret Wilson, Ruth Dyson, Maryan Street and Heather Simpson, she surrounded herself with a dour Praetorian Guard who picked Labour's candidates on the basis of whether they were prepared to support her, and their causes. Clark learnt early the importance of cultivating the media, which, like Parliament itself, was being feminised. Many journalists have adopted her; she has become their best friend. Clark has very successfully ridden the international wave of female empowerment that has dominated the last 30 years.
Paranoia can become a liability. Witness Clark's obsession with the Brethren that underlies the proposed crazy election spending restrictions, and her closed mind over nuclear power. Economies, societies and political parties have to evolve, and update. Experts now know that the high-tax, regulatory world of Clark's youth slows growth. Easy welfare, so eminently fair in the 1970s, causes much of today's family dysfunctionality, violence, child abuse and crime. Out-dated shibboleths and political correctness drive her educational system. Today's Labour Party seems listless, many of its MPs having served their initial purpose of supporting Clark. Labour averts its gaze from economic and social problems that need fixing if we are to compete in a globalizing world.
Skilled at deflecting criticism, with a genius for seeing off opponents and down-
grading colleagues who aren't true believers, Helen Clark and her government
nonetheless have grown stale. Their thinking doesn't "move on", which, oddly, is
her favourite phrase.