An indispensable guide to Helen Clark one year into her rule

Published in the Independent on 22 November 2000

Michael Cullen once said to me early in Helen Clark’s leadership of the Labour party that she would much rather be in a backroom debating policy than putting on makeup and classy dresses. Last week a Brunei newspaper gushed over Clark as a “fashion model”.

That says much about Clark’s hunger and discipline: hunger for the top job and discipline to do what did not come naturally to get the job and keep it. Now the classy dressing seems natural, even enjoyable to her.

But make no mistake: the glamour is mere patina. Unlike Margaret Thatcher or Queen Elizabeth I, with whom she is sometimes compared, femininity and flirtation are not in Clark’s political arsenal. For Clark politics is policy.

And in policy she plays the long game. The first indispensable guide to interpreting Clark is to understand that she wants three terms (nine years) in power.

That is not for reasons of hubris or self-aggrandisement or points-scoring over rival parties. It is because she wants the language of social democracy embedded in ordinary political discourse as the norm. She wants Labour to be the – or at least a – normal party of government.

One term would leave Labour where it was for the past half-century: 12 years of walk-on parts while National has run the show. Even two terms would not alter that pattern, especially if the second term was a fragile or fractious three-way concoction in which the two minor players schemed and manoeuvred to maintain their differentiation.

So Clark, coming up to one year into her first term, wants a good enough win in 2002 to form a base for a third term.

Game plans of that length require enough tonal and policy flexibility to keep the punters alongside. Clark is not the kind to flip around after fickle polls. But she shares with Labour’s greatest Prime Minister, Peter Fraser an attentiveness to what voters will bear.

What might flexibility mean? Here tap into a second indispensable guide to Clark: her politics are cerebral, not primal. She learnt her politics at university, not at her parents’ knee..

Contrast Mike Williams, the new Labour president. Williams is a shrewd, well-off, 50-ish retired businessman. He can talk the language of shares and property values and why business doesn’t like Clark’s policy changes. But his campaign bio for the presidency opened with: “I was born to blue-collar parents in Wainuiomata.” Williams, in Mike Moore’s words, is “tribal”.

Clark was not born into the tribe. Though her grandparents were Labour or Liberal, her parents were farmers who went National on the back of the early 1950s wool boom. From them Clark has inherited budgetary prudence: we must live within our means. That is a third indispensable guide to understanding her.

Her childhood did give her one important Labour-ish formative influence: hospitalisation with a collapsed lung at age 6, which she often quotes in support of strong social services — small farmers could not readily meet big medical bills. Then, a displaced person at boarding school in posh Epsom – which may help explain the remarkable combination of extraordinary resilience and a certain brittleness in her personality – brought her into contact with an inspiring history teacher.

Most important, however was to land in that seedbed of liberal-left politics of the early 1970s, Auckland University. That brought her in contact with the tribe. But learned attitudes can be modified by new learning. She can if necessary make policy shifts a birth-member of the tribe might think apostasy.

In foreign affairs, which brought her into active politics, and environmentalism, which she added later, she is unlikely to change. And her battles against sexism on her way up through Labour ranks embedded a mainstream feminism she will not shuck.

But economic policy is a different matter. Clark’s only postgraduate job was lecturing in politics, far out of range of businesspeople or business attitudes. Then on her way up – even during six years leading the opposition – Clark did not get tuition in economics nor an independent stream of advice. Instead, she conformed to a still persisting Labour tradition of seeing the economy as a machine. She left the mechanics to Michael Cullen.

That was a blind spot no modern Prime Minister, left or right, can afford. So she learned the hard way.

The business pandemonium over the Employment Relations Bill brought home the 2000s reality that if business is grumpy that dents consumer sentiment and, in consequence, Labour’s core vote. Any government needs business to be, at the very least, tolerant.

Again, don’t for a moment think Clark will recant on the labour laws and the other policy changes that have vexed business. Keeping her promises is not just a propaganda point after 15 years of parties bending and breaking promises: for her it is a moral imperative.

Within those constraints, however, Clark has quite a lot of room to move and has begun to move. In August I began to muse that over Christmas, atop whichever mountain she proposes to scoot up this year, she would mull over a change of tone on economic policy. Actually, she began to feel her way towards a new tone in September.

She summoned a summit. She put her weight behind Paul Swain’s e-summit and, mixing arts, creativity, innovation and “partnership” with business, drafted the beginnings of an economic vision. Integral to that is her step-by-step pragmatic acceptance, then advocacy, of free – or at least freer – trade in the course of this year.

Her vision will need much work on it yet – not least to bring along the Labour rank and file who sat stonily through this part of her keynote conference speech on Saturday, even though it was her centrepiece. And, though one or two senior CEOs in Auckland, notwithstanding their deregulatory personal preferences, have let it be known they are available for constructive confidential chats, she is still miles away from a good working relationship with business.

But the initiatives demonstrate the fourth indispensable guide to understanding Clark: that she is learning on the job, fast and studiously. Clark just keeps growing.

She needs to. The minority 1970s/80s liberal-leftism (colloquially called political correctness) which she brought to office is a minority taste.

Liberal-leftism is not necessarily an election-loser. Over time punters have accommodated to liberal-left policies even if they are initially suspicious or aghast: witness Springbok tours, the anti-nuclear stance and Treaty of Waitangi grievance settlements.

But that depends on building a strong opinion-leader consensus and/or staying within shouting distance of mainstream opinion. Sir Roger Douglas’s and Ruth Richardson’s crash-through economics demonstrates the point from the right wing: they sheered 13% off Labour’s vote share in 1990 and National’s in 1993.

Clark’s nemesis has been Tariana Turia. But there is more to it than Turia: most of Clark’s Maori caucus, which represents a powerful and wide strand of Maori opinion, is also adrift of mainstream opinion and even of the hitherto powerful Wellington liberal consensus on which the treaty agenda depends.

Clark should have seen that coming from her long chats with Turia between 1996 and 1999 and her pre-election familiarisation with the MPs-to-be. But the social democracy she learned in the early 1970s held there was no such thing as racial difference, only socioeconomic disparities.

This was her second serious blind spot and it might yet wreck her three-term chances – but for her attentiveness to voter sentiment and her flexibility. Once she grasped where she was insouciantly heading she backed out hastily. Her Labour conference speech did not mention closing the gaps.

Was this panic? Ministers make a point of insisting she does not panic, that her calm, deliberate manner is a feature of cabinet meetings.

More plausibly, her retreat is partly a factor of a deeply innate caution. She moves only when she is sure of her ground and of support. The “gaps” gaffe was simply a blind spot, a failure to see round a corner she had not even registered lay ahead.

Caution and meticulousness make up the fourth indispensable guide to understanding Clark. She is slow to trust (with good reason in mid-1990s Labour). She is known for correcting punctuation in her letters. She has become notorious for scolding subordinates – even dear friend Margaret Wilson – when they fall short of her standards or get the politics wrong. She often bothers about trivia – as journalists who get a word out of place find out when the frosty phone call or the formal complaint follows. She runs her own press relations, does her own spinning.

In short, she is a control freak.

In started in opposition. She operated through a tight, tiny inner group, working outwards through concentric rings of the trusted, then the less-trusted. This made policy development painfully slow, especially when she had doubts about the spokesperson (example: Steve Maharey). Then she centred election strategy in her office, greatly to the now-departed president Bob Harvey’s annoyance. Even Williams, her highly effective handpicked campaign director, was trusted with implementation but not with strategy.

In government senior bureaucrats and some of her ministers say this one-person rule has hampered policy development and implementation as they have waited for the word from on high. Even that monomaniac Sir Robert Muldoon encouraged more dissent and debate among his public servants than has Clark.

It can’t work. Modern societies and economies are far too complex and the issues too labyrinthine for rule on the King Dick Seddon model.

But re-enter Clark the studious learner on the job. In October, stung at last by taunts of Helengrad, she set out to give her ministers more space and trust.

Trust, or lack of it, is at the core of the fifth indispensable guide to Clark: the interplay of resilience and brittleness. Unbending, unyielding, even ruthless, she can also be hurt surprisingly easily. Her world sometimes seems from the outside to be divided into friends and enemies, the trusted and the untrusted. And she can be rough on the enemies and the untrusted.

Among the things that could be her undoing, this is high up the list. New Zealand voters respect, even admire a whacker – but only within bounds. Muldoon, a vicious whacker, demonstrated that: after a while too many had been whacked or were members of a whacked group and respect turned to fear, loathing and contempt.

The obverse of this is political scientist Clark’s recognition that government from the centre on the old social democratic rules is now impossible. Hence “partnership”, the sixth indispensable guide to understanding her.

This is not the place to examine this huge idea. But genuine partnership is between equals. Can Clark be an equal with local government or business or non-government organisations if her own ministers can barely claim partnership with her?

We will see.

My last indispensable guide is that she is formidably brainy. She finds it hard to tolerate fools and the medium-witted. Her quick intellect easily matches that of the best of the bureaucrats. She absorbs, processes and retains vast quantities of detail.

The big question over her prime ministership is whether she can process it in a way that makes common sense to her subjects.

The jury is out on that. But even in this Clark is learning. Though among intimates and ideological friends she is captivatingly warm and funny and increasingly shows that side to a wider circle, she is shy and often wooden with outsiders. Nevertheless, from the security of high office she has manufactured a folksiness of sorts. It does not substitute for the genuine article, which Jenny Shipley or Bill English demonstrate intuitively. But she might acquire enough to get by.

If she does, this highly complex person – the most intriguing of the 10 Prime Ministers I have watched as a journalist – will get her three terms and might be one of Labour’s greats. But that, as in many aspects of her prime ministership, is a big if.