Thomas Coughlan talks to our first elected woman Prime Minister about her new book, an uncomfortable election night and two areas of policy in which she could have achieved more. 

It may come as a surprise to some that Helen Clark chose to spend the night of 8 November 2016 at a party hosted by Samantha Power, then the US ambassador to the United Nations.

November 8 was election night in the United States but just one month earlier, Clark had been fighting an election battle of her own — to be the UN Secretary General. Clark lost, receiving three “discourage” votes from the powerful P5 and one neutral “no opinion” vote.

One of these unhelpful votes possibly came from Power. She had been openly campaigning for countries to nominate women for the role, but it seems pragmatism won out on the day and Clark’s reputation as a reformer was too much for the United States.

For those disappointed not to see a woman take the top job at the UN, November 8 was supposed to have delivered a consolation prize: the election of Hillary Clinton as president of the United States.

Power had invited women ambassadors to her apartment to watch the results come in and presumably, to celebrate.

But Clark had a bad feeling about the night from the start.

“I began watching the results come in and thought, ‘this doesn’t look very good’,” she says.

At about 8’clock, she turned to Power.

“What do you think is happening?” she asked.

“We’re not doing as well as we should be doing in areas that we really need to win well,” Power said.

So Clark did something very rare — she left.

“I had a gut feeling around 8.30 that ‘I’ve got to get out of here’.

“I thought this might not be a celebratory night at all, so I went home and I watched the whole horror scene unfold from there,” she says.

“By 9.30 I was messaging friends in New Zealand telling them I thought it would be impossible for Hillary to win.”

Was she surprised?

“Not really — I do understand a little about swings…” she says, ruefully.

“I felt that bringing up the emails again very late in the campaign was halting any momentum Hillary had.”

The next big job…

Back home from New York after her stint as head of the UN Development Programme, Clark is currently on the speaking circuit. She’s got a book out — a collection of speeches.

As was clear in RNZ’s The 9th Floor podcasts, she is not yet reflective like some of our other former Prime Ministers. Unlike Jim Bolger, who spoke quite candidly of his Government’s failures, Clark laces her speech the gentle spin of the active, not-quite former politician.

Her book is a collection of speeches and reads like a list of glass ceilings smashed. Though not quite auto-hagiography (if such a genre exists), those looking for reflection and or a mea culpa will be disappointed. One gets the sense Clark is too busy looking for the next big job to get caught up in reflection.

Even when discussing the low points, Clark shifts the subject to the high ones — when pressed on the low points, she prefers to discuss how they weren’t as low as they appeared.

Did the UN Secretary Election defeat hurt?

“Not really at all,” she says.

“I knew from early August that it was impossible to get there, but on the other hand I wasn’t going to make it easy for those who were driving it that way by just walking away and other women felt the same.”

“Pretty consistent”

Clark’s early speeches shed light both on how little and how much has changed, she herself thinks her positions have been “pretty consistent” since her maiden speech in 1982.

She entered Parliament in Muldoon’s last term. The 1981 election saw the percentage of women elected double from 4.3 percent to 8.7 percent, reflecting an increase from four to eight women MPs.

The issues Clark chose to focus on in her maiden speech are telling. She spoke of Auckland house and rent prices soaring “beyond the reasonable reach of working people”.

Elsewhere in the speech she talked of high transport costs, ethnic diversity in Auckland, free education, and free healthcare — she derided the Muldoon government’s proposal to charge for prescriptions, giving no hint of the massive pivot to the right the next Labour Government would usher in just two years later.

Then there’s trade. Clark criticised Muldoon’s renegotiation of the New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement, signed between the two countries in 1965, asking of the deepened economic relations with Australia: “can junior statehood be far behind?”

These remarks may place her uncomfortably in the company of globalisation sceptics — not exactly the Clark who later started negotiations on the controversial TPPA.

But other parts of her maiden speech are more consistent with the later Clark: she talked of homosexual law reform, women’s rights and health. And pursuing these issues came at significant political peril.

As Minister of Health, she sought to ban tobacco companies from sponsoring sports teams. The backlash from tobacco companies created an image of Clark she spend much of her political career trying to shake off.

“They obviously did a lot of research on how to portray me as a killjoy, as a woman who wanted to deny the working man one of their few pleasures and it was quite damaging for some time,” Clark says.

“It played into the gender stereotyping. Men in positions of authority and leadership are seen as strong, women who are tough are seen as bossy. It was a forerunner to the ‘nanny state’ label that was around for a long time,” she says.

But Clark faced the tobacco companies down and the ban was successful.

An innovative government

She describes her government as “innovative”.

“There were big transformational moves like Kiwisaver; the Super Fund; cutting ties with the Privy Council; and the abolition of knighthoods and damehoods, which sadly didn’t survive me,” she says.

“The social and economic policy was rather innovative.”

There were two areas where she feels she could have done more, if she had greater support: abortion and drug law reform.

“Abortion should come out of the Crimes Act, it makes no sense to have it there.”

But Clark’s experience as Health Minister trying to remove the requirement to have two consultants sign off on an abortion gave her a taste of the uphill battle abortion law reform would require.

She also wishes she’d initiated drug law reform in her first term, when she feels she had enough support from The Alliance to push it through.

She has has a sanguine outlook on these shortcomings, being quite happy to palm them off to the next generation

“They’re both things Jacinda is now in a position to raise and she has.”

Helen Clark: Women, Equality, Power is published by Allen & Unwin $45

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