Helen Clark

Now that her valedictory speech is done and dusted, I thought it was timely to do my own review of Clark’s years at the top. This is not going to be based on whether or not I agreed with her policies, but on how successful she was at advancing her agenda, and managing Government etc.


  • Winning three elections. At the end of the day, this is what it is about and the only PMs who won more elections were Holyoake (4) and Seddon (5). Clark is also the only Labour Prime Minister to have won three elections – Savage and Fraser only won two each, Nash one, Kirk one and Lange two.
  • Staying in office for nine years. Linked to the above, but as Jim Bolger found out, winning office and retaining office are not the same thing. Clark’s 8 years and 350 days is the 5th longest of our 38 PMs.
  • Uniting the Labour Party. Labour was bitterly divided up until around 1996. This had been the situation since around the 1970s. Kirk was paranoid and divisive. Rowling kept fighting off the fish and chips brigade. Lange wasn’t in charge of his own Government and the Moore/Clark hatred was legendary. But Moore made up in 1996, was bundled off to the WTO and Labour has been basically unified ever since. Yes there are still  some very loose right/left factions but they are a shadow of their former selves and more social than political.
  • Total dominance of the party. Clark gained dominance not only over the parliamentary wing, but also the organisational wing. Total loyalty.
  • Master of all portfolios. Clark was no hands off Chair of the Board. She was involved in whenever they posed a danger to the Government. Her competence was rarely challenged (her judgement being another issue)
  • Attracted good staff. Heather Simpson may have been feared, but that is what Clark wanted. Simpson was an extraordinarily effective operator, and Clark attracted some very smart operators such as Timms and Robertson. Good staff make a world of difference.
  • Changed the political balance. She moved the political pendulum seriously to the left, and has ensured successor Governments can not move it very far back. Sure she never reversed the benefit cuts, but nine years of her Government locked in many left wing gains.
  • Initially showed a commendable willingness to replace Ministers who were either not performing or had ethical lapses. This did not last, and will be dealt with later under weaknesses. But she started well.
  • Smartly associated herself with nation building activities such as arts, culture, veterans, tomb of unknown solider
  • Used Cullen smartly so that most of the time she was working almost as a President – foreign affairs, big ticket stuff, nation building, and Cullen ran the day to day mechanics of Government sorting out issues such as Foreshore & Seabed.
  • Smart manipulator of the media – her coverage in her first term especially was almost hagiographic as she would ring selected journos and gossip with them. No way did they want to lose the inside edge. Very smart (from her point of view).
  • In first two terms, showed pragmatic streak when needed. Backed down on certain employment law changes in 2000 facing Winter of Discontent. Dropped Closing the Gaps. Now in reality the work streams re-engaged at a later date, but from a political management point of view that is superb – you appear to back down even if you only delay or retitle. Remember this is judging Clark on achieving what she thought was best for NZ.
  • Very sound on international affairs. Never seriously put a foot wrong. Dragged Labour to the mainstream on trade issues
  • The FTA with China a massive achievement, and also getting the US to the table on one involving them.
  • Managed good relationships with world leaders, despite differences – good with Howard and even Bush. Very close to Blair and Brown.


  • Never quite got the vision thing. The closest she came was her speech about how NZ should aspire to be the first carbon neutral country on Earth. People will vote for leadership and vision, even if it is not one they 100% agree with – Howard got re-elected despite majority opposition to Iraq War, because people respected him for doing what he believed was right. The one time she did get visionary, she never backed it up with substance – her record on carbon emissions being one of the worst in the world.
  • A certain meanness of spirit. Her description of as cancerous and corrosive. Her “haters and wreckers” description of foreshore and seabed protesters. I could go on.
  • Loyalty above talent. Clark kept Tizard as a Minister for nine years. Even Hawkins lasted for six years. Samuels was twice made a Minister. While talented such as Tim Barnett and Charles Chauvel were kept out.
  • Over time she confused criticism of her Government and her, with criticism of New Zealand. Not the only PM to do this.
  • A near total inability to say sorry and apologise.
  • The culture of Helengrad – where civil servants, board members etc were all afraid to give dissenting views.
  • Treatment of the Greens – took them for granted, and locked them out of Government three times.
  • Ethical lapses – lying about Peter Doone to force him out of office, Paintergate and the associated coverup etc. More worrying is seemingly unaware did anything wrong.
  • Maori Party – did not even try to negotiate an agreement with in 2005, calling them last cab off the rank. A strategic blunder that had long term consequences.
  • A tendency to blame others and distance herself. There is no way she did not know what Mike Williams was up to in Australia, yet puts him out to hang. Another example is when she let her DPS drivers get prosecuted for getting her to the rugby on time. Pretended she never even noticed the speed of 180 km/hr. Would have got huge kudos if she had fronted and said “I’m horrified that my drivers are being prosecuted for just doing their job”. Many Police never forgave her for not sticking up for them.
  • Failed to rejuvenate in time. The 2008 list rejuvenation should have happened in 2005, and the 2007 Cabinet reshuffle in 2005.
  • Seriously lost her judgement in third term on numerous issues – almost every decision forced out of her at a stage when too late to stop harm – Benson-Pope sacking, pledge card paying back, anti smacking law compromise. Let these drag on for months more than they should have.
  • Electoral Finance Act – need more be said. Will always stain her record.
  • Winston – despite massive evidence that Winston had lied numerous time, she would take no real action. Her decision to have Labour vote against the Privileges Committee report was a disgrace.

This isn’t comprehensive. It is just off the top of my head thinking about it for a couple of hours. There are probably more you can add to both the strengths and weaknesses.

If I have time, I’ll do a Michael Cullen one also.

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