Air-brushed, Nicholas Reid

Helen Clark: Inside Stories
Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon (eds)
Auckland University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 978186940 8381

She led the parliamentary Labour Party for 15 years and served for nine years as New Zealand’s first elected woman prime minister. She is clearly a person of formidable intelligence, steely determination, and a strong sense of her social objectives. On the New Zealand scene, she was always a canny political operator who knew how to manoeuvre her way through challenges from both outside and inside her own party. (You don’t get re-elected three times as prime minister without having these skills.)
Since she left parliament, her mana has been increased by her high position in the United Nations (UN). So it’s perfectly reasonable that there be a book celebrating Helen Clark’s achievements. But any popular and non-scholarly book on a living political figure challenges us to question how, for what purpose and in what circumstances it was written.

Helen Clark: Inside Stories is an anthology of interviews with Clark and with people who know her or who have encountered her in the political arena. Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon conducted the interviews in 2012-13 for the television documentary Helen. Obviously, to create something of average running time, much of every interview had to be left on the cutting-room floor. So here, across 300 pages, we have fuller versions of the interviews, chopped into fragments by Eyley and Salmon and arranged into 18 chapters, following each stage of Clark’s career.

Some old political foes get to have their say, including prominent National Party figures like Don Brash, Jim Bolger and John Key. They sometimes criticise her policies as prime minister, but they are on their best behaviour and are very polite and complimentary about Clark herself. After all, she is now a prominent New Zealander on the international scene rather than somebody to be debated with across the floor of the House. Winston Peters’s contributions are more ambiguous. He does not denigrate Clark personally and says positive things about her skills, but is still angry at some of the things that were done on her watch. Bear in mind that the old fence-hopper once manoeuvred his way into being Clark’s minister of foreign affairs and enjoyed the role, so he can’t very well damn her and all her works. Indeed, the only political foes who really want to put the boot in are the right-wing commentator Matthew Hooten and Clark’s former Labour colleague Richard Prebble, who is still annoyed that she didn’t wholeheartedly support Rogernomics. They seem to be here for some sort of “balance”, so that Helen Clark: Inside Stories can claim to be a “warts and all” production.

But Helen Clark: Inside Stories is not “warts and all”. It is essentially a work of fandom. “Inside stories” mean stories from the insiders of Clark’s circle. The overwhelming majority of interviewees are Clark’s family, friends, political allies, admirers and commentators who see things her way. A media release from Auckland University Press (AUP) lists all the contributors.

Interestingly, four of those listed in the release are conspicuously absent from the book itself. There is nothing from Mike Moore. Like Clark herself, Moore has become somebody representing New Zealand overseas (five years as our ambassador in Washington), and I’m sure he would be very diplomatic in what he said. I would therefore have liked to hear his views on the woman who rolled him for the party leadership. There is nothing from Heather Simpson, whom the AUP publicity also lists. Once nicknamed “H2” for her powerful position beside “H1” (Clark), Simpson was for the best part of 20 years Clark’s closest advisor and confidante, both in New Zealand and at the United Nations (UN) in New York. Eyley and Salmon are very strident about the “homophobic abuse” that was directed at Clark when she was rumoured to be a lesbian. Their interviewees take every opportunity to report on her long and successful marriage to Peter Davis; and Davis himself (who is given generous space) comes across as a thoroughly decent chap. Fair enough. But does this mean that, in order to massage Clark’s image, Eyley and Salmon chose to excise a contribution from the out-and-proud lesbian Simpson? Or was there some other reason for her not appearing in the text? I’m not as perturbed by the absence of two other AUP listees. Jenny Shipley, New Zealand’s first non-elected woman prime minister, might have had some pungent things to say about facing off against New Zealand’s first elected woman prime minister, but I don’t think Roger Douglas’s absence matters very much as the ideological gulf that separates him from Clark is well known.

So there are some interesting absences, most of Clark’s political opponents are guarded in their statements, and we mainly get the views of fans and supporters. On top of this, Clark herself plays the game of Disinterested Elder Stateswoman by managing to say positive things even about the likes of Robert Muldoon. (On a foreign affairs committee “I found that if you treated him with the respect that was his due as prime minister and senior member, things went smoothly enough”.) While clearly stating her views on policies, she is too experienced and canny to continue partisan debate when she is no longer in the game.

None of this means that Helen Clark: Inside Stories is without its revealing and pungent moments. Jim Anderton broke with the Lange-Douglas Labour government when its neo-liberal economics became unbearable to him. He stomped off to found his own political party. Clark gritted her teeth and stayed with Labour. The chapter that deals with this period (Chapter 5) is loaded so as to dissociate Clark from Rogernomics (even though she voted for its chief measures) and to emphasise her role in making New Zealand nuclear-free. Anderton nevertheless gets to say how he later managed to find common ground with Clark and, in the new MMP environment, spent one term as her deputy prime minister. His comments are among the most acute in the book. I’m surprised, too, to find myself enjoying the gutsiness of Georgina Beyer’s contribution, especially when she talks about surviving the abuse and bloody rudeness that greeted her, Clark and other government figures when they entered the Waitangi marae one Waitangi Day.

The compilers of this book set out to celebrate Clark as the minister of housing who did her best to prevent Rogernomes from selling off state housing stock; and as the prime minister who helped in the creation of Fonterra, involved New Zealand in Afghanistan as a UN project but wisely kept us out of the Iraq mess; decriminalised prostitution, brought in civil unions and did other things worthy of note. But there is also the Foreshore and Seabed scrap to explain away and the Urewera raids (which happened on Clark’s watch but which, of course, were the police’s call and not hers.) A possible subtext is the whole narrative of a centre-left party that sometimes got blindsided by identity politics. The tone of many interviewees goes very defensive about these things.

I’m happy to agree that some of the so-called “scandals” that happened in Clark’s premiership were essentially media beat-ups (“Paintergate”, “Speedgate” – even “Corngate”). Even so, for better or worse, image is a huge part in politics, and it is interesting to hear Brian Edwards, Clark’s image-maker and media manager, admit that Clark was “admired”, but not “liked” as prime minister.

On balance, Helen Clark: Inside Stories is the air-brushed photo version of Clark, for all the interesting things that some contributors have to say. Apart from being a work of fandom, its chief value will be as a source-book when, eventually, somebody gets to write a full, detailed and scholarly political biography. That will probably be many years from now.

Dr Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet and critic who runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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