Helen Clark by Karen Phelps
Helen Clark is one of those rare human beings that can chat amicably for 30 minutes and reveal very little. So much so it is difficult at times to discern any tangible human frailty or quality about our Prime Minister at all.
What is Helen Clark personally afraid of?
“Nothing. I don’t scare easily.”
When is she happiest?
When did she last cry?
“I go to quite a few funerals so often I will be dabbing a wet eye there.”
Any funeral in particular?
“I can’t think of when I would last have cried as such….”
Undoubtedly this guardedness is one of the side effects of being a politician but one can’t help but suspect this in fact could well hamper her ability to appear ‘relatable’ to her constituents. When asked to describe herself she does so in largely dispassionate terms – task focused, clear priorities, fair, energetic, close to her family, likes intellectual stimulation, will stand up for what she believes in. When pressed she agrees she is strong-willed, determined, perhaps stubborn (“sometimes you have to stand your ground, you can’t be a doormat”) and will not shy away from an argument.
Today on the telephone Clark appears matter of fact. She says she doesn’t let things “go to her head” by making her main residence in Auckland rather than Premier House in Wellington. She still does her own shopping at the supermarket and goes to the gym. Clark doesn’t consider she has changed much since becoming Prime Minister and is still willing to listen to what others have to say.
“I always have an open ear, you can’t do this job well if you don’t. Having said that you come into politics with clear philosophies and some people advocate things, which you could never accept so it’s knowing where to draw the line.”
Clark says not much surprised her about the job when she entered the doors of the Beehive as New Zealand’s first elected woman Prime Minister on 27 November 1999 after being leader of the opposition for nine years:
“People in the public service did get a lot more formal and call me Prime Minister. I don’t particularly like it because I’m an informal person and I call people by their first names but public servants seem to be uncomfortable doing that, they think it shows a lack of respect. [The first time I got called Prime Minister] I thought ‘why are they doing this?’”
Over the previous years Clark held office at every level of the Labour Party. She was a member of the Party's New Zealand executive from 1978 until September 1988 and again from April 1989. She has been the president of the Labour Youth Council, an executive member of the Party's Auckland Regional Council, secretary of the Labour Women's Council and a member of the Policy Council. She has represented the Labour Party at congresses of the Socialist International and the Socialist International Women in 1976, 1978, 1983, and 1986, at an Asia-Pacific Socialist Organisation Conference held in Sydney in 1981, and at the Socialist International Party Leaders' Meeting in Sydney in 1991. Clark was a Government delegate to the World Conference to mark the end of the United Nations Decade for Women in Nairobi in 1985. In 1986 she was awarded the annual Peace Prize of the Danish Peace Foundation for her work in promoting international peace and disarmament.
Since her election as MP for Mt Albert, her parliamentary positions have included Minister of Conservation, Minister of Housing and Minister of Health. She has chaired the Cabinet Social Equity Committee, and was a member of the Cabinet Policy Committee, Cabinet Committee on Chief Executives, Cabinet Economic Development and Employment Committee, Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee, Cabinet State Agencies committee, Cabinet Honours Appointments and Travel Committee, and Cabinet Domestic and External Security Committee.
So what does Clark consider she, as a woman Prime Minister, has brought to parliament?
“Umm well I think I try very hard to get a team working. It is important to have a strong team spirit and have the team buy into government decisions. Working laterally, horizontally rather than from the top down is part of my style. This has been defined in the management literature as a more female way of working – inclusively rather than exclusively.”
She says since her early days in parliament the culture has changed enormously from a ‘little boys club’:
“[Male politicians] didn’t really know how to deal with women, you weren’t part of the drinking circles and didn’t really fit the model. Over time we [women] have changed the model.
“That’s not to say you still don’t get some bad behaviour. But when I came in only 9% of members of parliament were women – 8 out of 92. So obviously women’s concerns didn’t get much of an airing. Today that figure is closer to 30%.”
Clark thinks being a woman MP is now an asset as she can not only relate to having worked in a ‘man’s world’ but as a female can also relate to issues of pertinence to women.
“I’m regarded with great interest off shore. [For example] I was the only woman at the Commonwealth conference last year. You just have to bowl up, put out your hand and say ‘hello I’m Helen Clark Prime Minister of New Zealand’. And they’re thinking ‘my goodness, they have women Prime Minister’s down there’, it’s all a novelty.”
There have been books and numerous articles written about Clark’s life. Helen Elizabeth Clark was born in Hamilton in 1950. By her own admission she comes from a generation of very independent, determined people. Her mother Margaret McMurray was a teacher (she home schooled Clark at one stage due to Clark’s allergies preventing her from attending school) and father George Clark was a farmer. Clark had a fairly isolated rural upbringing and says being the oldest of four sisters she was always a leader.
Clark attended Epsom Girls Grammar School in Auckland and then studied at Auckland University and graduated with MA (Hons) in 1974. Her MA and PhD thesis research was on rural political behaviour and representation. She was a junior lecturer in political studies in Auckland from 1973-75, studied abroad on a University Grants Committee post-graduate scholarship in 1976, and then lectured in political studies at Auckland from 1977 until her election to Parliament in 1981. From 1 December 1993 Helen Clark was Leader of the Opposition. She says taking the Labour Party into government in 1999 was the biggest challenge she has experienced in her life to date.
Making a difference, making decisions and defining the direction the country is moving in are the things Clark relishes about the job. Typically she deals with the stresses of the job in practical terms – eating well, getting enough sleep and making sure she is sufficiently hydrated. Clark says she has no trouble putting aside the worries of the day and falls asleep quickly reading a book.
Clark may not have given away much today but there have been the odd glimpses of her personality over the years. A television interview with her and husband Peter during which Clark rested her teacup on his knee giving a rare indication of the bond the couple share. Clark thinks her friends would consider her a funny person yet many people were probably surprised to recently see her dressed up as a Paua at Tourism New Zealand’s Sydney showcase event generating newspaper headlines such as ‘Paua wearing PM stuns Aussies.’ But a couple of years ago she pulled a similar stunt sashaying down the catwalk at The Wearable Art Awards. When she took her mask off everybody got up and cheered. “They specially made the outfit for me and asked if I would do it so I said ‘yes, why not let’s be a sport’,” she says matter of factly. “It rounds out the image [people have of me]. Often when people see me on TV it is over serious issues so of course it would be totally inappropriate to be flippant.”
There has been much speculation over the years about Clark’s relationship with Peter. In Brian Edwards’ book Helen Portrait of a Prime Minister it is suggested that Clark never in fact wanted to get married and did so only under duress as voters had a negative view of cohabitation in those days. So does she have any regrets?
“When I was a young person marriage was very much associated with women giving up their careers. There was only one path [a woman could take] and very few people broke out of that. I always wanted to have a career and I never wanted to have children so [for me] marriage was associated with things I didn’t want to do. Now of course things have changed and marriage is seen as entirely compatible with having your own mind and independence. So I suppose I was one of the women pioneers for being married, having a career and making a positive choice not to have children. It wasn’t the usual path put it that way. It depends what priorities you have. Had I decided I wanted to have a family I couldn’t be doing what I am doing now.”
Although the pair has spent a considerable amount of time apart Clark says it has always been this way since they first met.
“People think I spend all my time in Wellington but I usually go down on Monday and by Thursday I am out in regional New Zealand and I am in Auckland all weekend.
“Over [the past] 27 years Peter has been an incredible supporter of mine. In a job like this the last thing you want to come home to is somebody who question your ability, your motivation, what you are doing and he is always very supportive.”
With her hectic schedule seems time off is a rare commodity so what would Clark do on a perfect day off?
“Go skiing, come home to a hot shower and a mug of mulled wine and read a book. That would be me. I am not someone who will ever sit with nothing to do. I couldn’t stand it.”
Clark says she is passionate about the economy and considers there is a world of opportunity for New Zealand business if it can be smart, quick and innovative. She says finding appropriately qualified staff is one of the biggest challenges industries in New Zealand face.
“There needs to be partnership between government, the education sector and business. We need to be better as a country at identifying exactly where the [skill] shortages are because if you do that you can address [the problem].
“It’s a very competitive international environment but that said there are so many New Zealand businesses doing so well. I meet them all the time that’s why I feel so positive about what is happening.”
This year's budget increased government funding for the culture and heritage sector by over $30 million next year. As Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Clark says investment in the creative sector is important to her as it is a rapidly growing area and creates a buzz that can have a ripple effect on other New Zealand business sectors, she cites The Lord of the Rings as a prime example.
So what is success to her?
“It depends what you mean by success. There have been all sorts of milestones and successes in my life. Success to me is reaching my goals.
“I don’t have regrets. Undoubtedly there have been mistakes but the Opposition points them out so why would I point them out myself [now]? I put it down to experience and move on to the next thing. What’s the point in looking backwards, you have to look forwards.
“My advice [to other women] is to take your education as far as you can and be very clear about the choices you want to make in life, don’t just drift. Set goals then work out strategies for reaching them.”