The most feted New Zealand politician of the past week is one who has not been in Parliament for 10 years. While today’s members of Parliament grapple with the everyday compromises, disappointments and rare triumphs of political life, a former leader has taken on a new, Olympian role as an oracle who is above it all.
Helen Clark’s book of speeches from a life in politics, titled Women Equality Power, was probably timed for the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Its publication has led to Clark filling concert halls, bookstores and other venues up and down the country. Audiences have enjoyed her stories of determination and her wry commentary on the sexism of politics.
At a sold-out event in Christchurch, she told former underling turned mayor Lianne Dalziel and a rapt, largely female crowd that “There’s no such thing as a glass ceiling, just a thick layer of men”.
At times, it has been like seeing a former monarch in exile who believes she was somehow usurped or deposed and even feels under-appreciated.
That’s a great analogy.
In this narrative, Clark’s failure to win the top job at the United Nations boils down to institutional sexism and an unwillingness to allow a strong leader to make dramatic changes to a stolid organisation, rather than any other personal or historical factors. A New Zealand-made documentary endorsed Clark’s version of events.
Clark was always a long shot. I actually think she would have done a better job that most of the contenders. But she was from the wrong region, didn’t speak French, and had little support from members of the P5.
In that context, then, Clark’s input into the current travails of the party she once led seem unhelpful at best. Clark has said that she would have handled Labour’s infamous summer camp scandal differently. Under her watch, “people didn’t keep their jobs”, as she reminded us.
Clark also praised aspects of Ardern’s leadership, including her approach to business confidence, but this clear indication from Clark that she would have expected heads to roll sent a strong signal. It cemented an impression, already developing in the public mind, that Ardern was weak and compromised whereas Clark had been swift and decisive.
It was not helped by poor timing for Ardern. The reappearance of Clark, and the reminder of her steely resolve, coincided with a series of destabilising problems for the Ardern Government. Should Ardern have been tougher on underperforming minister Clare Curran? What would Clark have done about the allegations against Meka Whaitiri? Would Clark have allowed herself to be embarrassed on Nauru as Ardern was this week?
It is almost beyond doubt that Clark would have sacked Curran and Whaitiri within days, rather than drag things out for weeks or even months.
And it is unthinkable that Peters would have undermined Clark on refugee policy as he did with Ardern.
As Sir Ray Avery has recently learned, Clark is also a formidable opponent with a ferocious intellect who may be remembered as the most competent and capable prime minister of the MMP era. But she risks being both underemployed and overexposed in her role as a “freelance political advocate”, and nostalgia for the days of Aunty Helen does the Ardern Government few favours.
The prominence of Clark seems to do two things.
For those who liked her, it highlights the weakness of this Labour Government in contrast to Clark’s one.
For those who were sick of her after nine years, it is like a bad acid trip, and makes people more anti Labour.
So Clark’s prominence is hurting Labour on both sides.
Which means we should in fact encourage her to stay as high profile as possible!