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Helen Clark's chest-beating is wearing a bit thin


Jacinda Ardern greets Helen Clark at Labour's election launch in August 2017. Photo / Getty Images

Since returning home to New Zealand the former Prime Minister has been talking tough - but her track record bears scrutiny.

There is a rooster that regularly announces its presence from beyond my back fence. When it started crowing one morning last week, I immediately thought of Helen Clark. I had just read that she had told Stuff journalists “heads would have rolled” if the Labour Party’s youth camp sex assaults had occurred on her watch because, under her leadership, “people didn’t keep their jobs”. 

She added that she wasn’t sure if she would have released the internal report but made it clear: “I would have handled it differently from the start.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer


The inescapable implication of her comments was that Jacinda Ardern is either too weak, too nice, too inexperienced or too indecisive — or maybe a combination of all these failings — to be an effective PM faced with this sort of problem. And, of course, very unlike her tough and decisive Labour predecessor.

The same morning, a review copy of Clark’s collection of speeches Women, Equality, Power (published on September 3) crossed my desk. Jacinda Ardern has written a foreword generously praising Clark. It was hard not to wonder after reading Clark’s comments about the youth camp whether Ardern really needs enemies when she has friends like her.

As a journalist colleague emailed after reading the Stuff report: “I bet Ardern just loves having Clark back in New Zealand.”

For some reason, my early morning thoughts then strayed to Margaret Atwood, who said earlier this year (and repeated recently after allegations of sexual assault against #MeToo spokeswoman Asia Argento): “My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing.” 

Atwood might have added that women are just as capable of being every bit as insufferable in their chest-beating as any man (which many people think is a typical, if not exclusively, male trait).

Clark continues to assert her toughness, time after time. When she faced off against Sir Ray Avery over his proposed charity concert at Eden Park in July, she boasted: “He’s probably picked the wrong person to try to bully in directly attacking me.”

And Clark’s high opinion of her own toughness extends now to claiming that she was too strong a personality for the UN to accept as Secretary-General. Stuff reported her saying her run at the top job was “stymied” because “four of five of the great powers didn’t want a strong personality type.” 

It was a view she repeated to the NZ Herald’s Simon Wilson. Describing the run-up to the UN race, and the need to stand up to Russia, the United States and China, she said: “The tragedy is that the world is looking for leadership. We had some conversations as to whether I should present as not a strong leader. Pretend that I was an ineffectual person who wouldn't say boo to a goose. But that wasn’t me.” 

We are obviously meant to accept that Clark was the outstanding candidate to lead the UN but the international organisation was far too scared of her strong, outspoken personality to actually select her.

In fact, rightly or wrongly, many of us who aren’t devotees of the Cult of Helen remember just how often she was frightened by a goose hissing at her in New Zealand. We remember her timid reforms to the Employment Contracts Act that saw the union movement further weakened under her watch; her backing away from the Closing the Gaps programme to lift Māori; and her blocking Māori from taking their case over the foreshore and seabed to the Māori Land Court. When thousands of protesters marched on Parliament, she would not leave her office to address the crowd, instead labelling them “haters and wreckers”.

Perhaps more than anything else, we remember her unwillingness to follow Jim Anderton’s lead when he was suspended from the Labour caucus for voting against selling the BNZ in 1989. Her famous line that she “hadn’t come this far to go down in a hail of bullets with Jim Anderton” was for many a vivid reminder of the narrow limits of her courage.

Or perhaps we remember David Lange’s summation of her. In his memoirs, he wrote about Clark not engaging in Cabinet battles over Rogernomics: “She responded by putting her head down. She was, by her own account, a survivor: as long as her paddock had a good sole of grass the firestorm could consume the rest.”

Clark later responded: “I was sitting at the bottom of the table. It was a bit like, the grass gets trampled when the elephants fight.”

Is this plausibly a person who would take on elephants like Russia, the US and China as she intimated to the Herald she would if she had won the job as the UN’s Secretary-General?

All her decisions to flee bullets and keep her head down were politically sound, of course, and her incrementalist approach was why she managed to stay in power in New Zealand for nine years, but depicting herself as a leader who is too strong for her UN colleagues to stomach is a bit rich on the evidence.

In fact, Ardern may turn out to be a much braver politician than Clark ever was. Where Clark may have shown herself to be better than Ardern has been in dealing decisively with errant ministers but Ardern is leading a government that intends to be transformational.

For all its obvious flaws, and apparent lack of discipline, the Labour-led coalition is ready to upset the apple cart, whether it is in industrial relations, education, China’s role in the Pacific, climate change or housing, among other areas.

Of course, there are many vested interests in business and the media who want Ardern to fail and it’s very possible she might falter and fall but she’s brave enough to give it a real shot.

It’s easy to be fooled by Ardern’s pleasant manner and professed politics of kindness. But it’s clear she is in no way the flake that commentators proclaimed her to be before the election.

And that extends even to her living arrangements. When Helen Clark came under pressure to marry her partner, Peter Davis — pressure so unwelcome that she confessed she had cried on her wedding day — she gave in and married him in 1981 during her first campaign to win the Mt Albert electorate. This despite her strong feminist beliefs and the fact she was a shoo-in for the Labour stronghold.

Ardern, however, is not only openly living in sin with her partner Clarke Gayford but she has recently given birth in her unmarried state. There are plenty of conservative critics in New Zealand, especially among the religious, who have taken a very dim view of her living arrangements, but she is obviously happy to ignore them. Just as she will ignore the critics of her flight to Nauru for the Pacific Islands Forum that will enable her to be away from her baby for as brief a time as possible.

Jacinda Ardern is much tougher than she looks — and her prime ministership is possibly going to be braver and more transformational than Clark’s ever was.