Trail-blazing, Harvey McQueen

Helen Clark: A Political Life
Denis Welch
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143202417

I admire Helen Clark, and I was pleased to be asked to review this book. Unlike David Lange, who flashed meteor-like across the parliamentary firmament, Clark became a consummate politician after a long apprenticeship, learning the hard way about the nature of the game. As prime minister she ran a tight ship. Her stance over the Iraq invasion made me proud to be a New Zealander, and I recall with gratitude her support for the arts. As Welch writes, “Helen Clark has probably been the most culturally sophisticated and physically active prime minister New Zealand has ever had.”

Although unauthorised, this book is thoroughly absorbing. Welch writes well and has strong opinions; his text is studded with interesting quotations from a considerable range of people. (He did interview me, but he quotes me only once – I had very little contact with Helen Clark herself during my time in the Beehive.)

Early on, he makes a surprising mistake, which his editor should have picked up. He says Clark went to a private school. Not so – Epsom Girls’ Grammar is a long-established, prominent state school. This slip fosters a major misconception about her background. It made me wonder about other statements of fact in the book.

However, Welch sets the scene well, beginning in 1968, the year Clark was a fresher at Auckland University, when “women were almost invisible in New Zealand public life … [they] lacked not only political power but social status.” Holyoake was prime minister, and Kirk was the newly elected leader of the Labour opposition, a party badly in need of renewal.

Welch traces Clark’s 40-year political journey from that year till her electoral defeat in 2008. Summing up, he makes the case that “she was the personification of the great resettling undergone by this country in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the seismic political and economic upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s.” He argues that her “political competence and prime ministerial demeanour” has greatly normalised female participation in politics, and concludes, “[T]he struggle for genuine equality is far from being won – when it is, Clark’s leadership will, I believe, be looked back on as trail-blazing.” Yes, it will.

Muldoon might have railed about the universities breeding a liberal-left generation, but Welch argues that “Joining Labour wasn’t a radical thing to do. It was a job application. For a career in mainstream politics. At that stage Clark’s focus was almost entirely international.” That interest in foreign affairs remained with her throughout her career. Welch says that while he was working on this book, he “found universal agreement at least on this aspect of Clark’s career: she was most in her element when representing New Zealand overseas and moving through the realms of diplomacy, trade and geopolitics.”

From the start Clark was quite clear: she wanted three terms in power and would like four. If she had been more radical or controversial, she would have been ousted earlier, or never gained power in the first place. It’s an old political dilemma, especially in a democracy. Idealism has its place, but to get and keep power you need to compromise and trim. If you lose power, the New Zealand experience is that it’s a long time before you get it back. Welch puts it very well: “[C]hoices are freighted with compromise, calculation and personal baggage. Like all of us, only a lot more publicly, Clark gave ground on some things, held the line on others.”

Welch credits Clark for saving the Labour Party from extinction, indeed for resurrecting it. To do this, she needed to extend the olive branch first to Jim Anderton’s Alliance, and later to other parties. Once in power she was saddled with an MMP environment, something she had never wanted. For three terms she navigated through the shoals of that environment with skill, but nevertheless it did limit her options. Which, I am sure, is the reason the electorate voted for MMP. It did not like the abrupt policy lurches of the Fourth Labour Government or the early years of Ruthonomics.

Welch is certainly not sycophantic. His Alliance sympathies shine through. He’s critical of Clark and Cullen for not unravelling the Rogernomics revolution more. But they were faced with a double whammy. They had to prove to the left that the rightward revolution had finished and the tide was retreating. At the same time, they had to regain and retain the centre.

A hallmark of the Fifth Labour Government was its discipline. Having experienced the dysfunctional years of the Lange/Douglas struggle, Clark and Cullen were determined to keep disagreement out of sight. Critics of Clark as a control freak can’t have it both ways. If she had not been, her government would probably not have lasted as long as it did.

Particularly interesting, and the core of the book, is Welch’s account of Clark toughing it out when five prominent front-benchers confronted her to urge that she should step down as leader of the opposition. She didn’t, though her deputy, David Caygill, did. It is a sign of Clark’s political astuteness that she did not demote the rebels, and over time they became her loyal supporters. Welch claims that:

with her back against the wall, and her fortunes at their lowest ebb, she found the will and the strength to assert herself and – for the first time – became a true leader. Simply, if she wasn’t going to collapse in a heap, she had to stand and fight. Which she did. And found herself as a leader in the process.


At the subsequent election, Winston Peters had the role of kingmaker. He chose Bolger. If he’d chosen Clark, her and our history would have been different. Welch says she should be grateful to Peters for not choosing her, because “Labour was not fit to govern in 1996; it needed more time to settle its internal differences, to deodorise the pong of Rogernomics, and to make peace with the Alliance.” Moreover, by destabilising the Shipley government, Peters helped pave the way for Labour to win in 1999.

Welch interrupts his narrative between 1996 and 1999 to devote a chapter called “So Different in Person” to Clark’s attributes and temperament. This is not only a very difficult task, but a risky one. She was a markedly private person, and most of those close to her did not wish to be interviewed. Welch wrestles with her dilemma of being a political woman, and the double standard involved. The media did not comment about Bolger’s hair or clothes or marriage. Welch quotes Clark herself pointing out that Bolger never once drew attention to her childlessness; but other politicians often did. As Welch says elsewhere, “sexism is a stayer, and misogyny still smoulders like an old incinerator in the kiwi heartland.”

In the middle of this chapter are three pages of “comments and observations drawn from conversation and research”. Some are attributed – to Michael Cullen, Charles Waldegrave, Arthur Baysting and Mary Varnham; others are not. Up to this point, and after, Welch is meticulous in attribution. It seems unfair and unwise to lapse from this practice with these comments about personality and character. It would appear that the journalist has taken precedence over the biographer.

Welch’s summary of the years 1999-2008 is succinct: “The story of the fifth Labour Government is essentially the story of two aims: to stay in power and to stay true to its own conception of itself. Good plan. Only problem: the two aims were irreconcilable.” He argues, I think correctly, that “Brash’s speech at Orewa on 27 January 2004 marked the point at which the Clark Labour Government started to lose its cool, its gloss and the plot.” It was roughly at the same point, after four years in power, that the fourth Labour Government began to disintegrate. Helen Clark saw Brash off, but it was at a cost. By 2008 she was leading a rather exhausted ministry, undercut by the vagaries of MMP. She had held it together by her own will-power and strength.

A politician to the core, she herself was not tired or worn out: “Clark went down fighting, just as she’d come up.” She left with dignity. Welch says “[P]osterity will, I think, be kind to her.” I hope so. She deserves it.


Harvey McQueen is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 


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