Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Clark's Career and Achievements (National Business Review)

14/11/2008

No other New Zealand prime minister has revealed the steely discipline of Helen Clark. No one else, for that matter, was ever as ambitious for the top job. From her student days she organized with it in mind. The friends she gathered were those who admired her ambition and were ready to assist. Women predominated. Clark's power bases within the Labour Party that she joined in 1970 were the Princes Street Branch and the Labour Women's Council. She was prominent in the fight for abortion rights and free day care. Her goal was to push through the glass ceiling, and to become the first woman prime minister of New Zealand. That was almost the only thing denied her. Elected to the Labour Party Executive in 1977, she used her influence to choose candidates likely to support her. An early alliance with the equally ambitious, but less disciplined, Jim Anderton, enabled her to exercise a level of influence within the party that was amazing for someone not yet 30. In Parliament for Mt Albert from 1981 she worked tirelessly with a team dominated by women to make it a Labour fortress. Social change assisted. The increasing rate of divorce and partnership collapses meant a growing number of solo women found in Clark a kindly aunt or sister with whom to share their misgivings about the world. Nationally, the Labour Party that began its life with a male cloth cap image became an assemblage dominated by people distrustful of men.

Clark's rise to the top was not a straight line. For a time she and her closest confidante, Margaret Wilson, attached themselves to Anderton's messianic dreams. Their plans were to have him succeed Bill Rowling as Leader of the Labour Party, with Clark as his deputy, and successor. But the agendas of abortion law reform, educational dogma and social control mechanisms mostly directed at the perceived inadequacies of men, caused resistance amongst her caucus colleagues. By the early eighties the economy was in terrible shape thanks to Robert Muldoon's regulations, excessive spending, high inflation and an over-valued dollar. A more realistic majority of her colleagues knew that fixing the economy would do more for Labour voters than controversial social agendas. Dubbed by one Labour intellectual "a Princess of the Mushies", Clark (and Anderton) were gradually pushed aside when economic restructuring couldn't be avoided. Clark nearly made cabinet in July 1984 but failed because a majority feared disloyalty. Rogernomics that underpins the modern economy and which Clark willingly availed herself of when Prime Minister, moved ahead, without her. She re-adjusted her game plan. Clark slowly attached herself to the Lange-Douglas-Palmer government, becoming Minister of Housing and Conservation in 1987. Margaret Wilson's, Ruth Dyson's and then Maryann Street's candidate selections favouring Clark paved the way first for her narrow victory for the deputy prime ministership in 1989, and then the ousting of Mike Moore from the party leadership immediately after the 1993 election. In the meantime, she signed up to the privatization of Postbank, Air New Zealand, State Insurance and Telecom, things she later hoped voters would forget.

It was not an easy ride to the top after 1993, but Clark's ambition never flagged.
She has the Teflon characteristics that people observed in Bill Clinton. She can deflect personal criticism with skill, often using a distraction. And she possesses an extraordinary capacity to demonize anyone who isn't a true believer. The Exclusive Brethren were whipped mercilessly in 2005, Roger Douglas more recently. In January 1990 she begged Douglas to return to the finance minister's role. But when it suited her purposes against John Key, she waved Douglas' name about like a devil on a stick. Clark's skill at drumming up support through email trees and leagues of the true believers is formidable. She ran her caucus with a rod of iron.

After 1999, Clark deflected criticism of her lack of economic understanding with consummate skill. How many remember that Labour's first act on becoming government was to lift the top rate of income tax? She tried to cover the irritation in business circles by promoting a "Knowledge Wave" that would lift New Zealand into the top half of the OECD. Then she realized that it would require disciplined spending and labour market reform that might upset her union friends. She perceived more votes in beefing up public service numbers, funding tertiary students rather than the institutions they studied at, and promoting hip-hop courses, than in knuckling down to the disciplines essential for economic growth. The above average growth from 1994-2004 ebbed away. Productivity too. So did the wage and salary levels that might have staunched the flow of skills to Australia. Even that haemorrhage didn't worry her. It was potential National voters who were fleeing. Under the populist Clark, everything was measured not in terms of what would save the country, but what would save her bacon, and her narrow view of the world.

Populism without principle worked. That is, until Don Brash came along. He staged an amazing National Party revival in 2005. But Clark enticed Winston Peters into coalition first. He came at a high price with the racing industry demands from his financial backers. Teflon helped Clark avoid the whiff of corruption. But eventually the truth emerged. By this time, however, other agendas like the smacking legislation and the Electoral Finance Act were engulfing her. Working for Families with its disincentive to extra effort couldn't turn around the perception that Labour was opportunistic. 50,000 WFF recipients are now to be penalized because they worked extra hours and were honest enough to declare it. The world economic downturn after years of excessive balance of payments deficits has made New Zealand vulnerable. This meant that Clark's continued hold on office looked unlikely. Other politicians have always understood that "it's the economy, stupid". Not the Princess of the Mushies.

Clark staged a valiant fight to protect her agendas during the recent election, demonizing everyone with crisis experience. But when the numbers went up on election night it was "over and out for me". She'd prepared herself for the outcome and leaves her supporters and the gathering financial storm to others before the hurricane reaches Force Five. That way, hopefully, nobody will remember who was responsible for so many of her domestic failures. Clark departs as purposefully as she arrived. Agendas intact, despite the evidence that they are useless, all ready to be inflicted at the international level. It's been an amazing, some would say, self-indulgent career for which we will pay for years to come. Many of the biggest losers in the end will be the same vulnerable people who attached themselves to Aunty Helen in the first place. She made them feel good for a time, but eventually they'll start to realise that Aunty came up short, and that the Fifth Labour Government cheated them.