Warrior Queen or Good Queen Helen?

Colin James on Helen Clark for the Independent for 4 December 2002

Helen Clark kicked off the election campaign this year snarling at the Greens on the steps of Parliament. Later she did a sumptuous official opening in the Aotea Centre to an adoring throng. But the earlier unrehearsed version became the campaign’s abiding image and theme. And it cost votes.

This is the Clark who had to battle her way to the top through platoons of hostility, malice and scorn. She is, as a result, brittle and fierce and lashes out at enemies real and imagined.. Sentimentality is only for the most private of moments. Trust is doled out frugally and readily withdrawn.

Tremble in her presence, this Warrior Queen, for she takes no prisoners. Tell Bill English, fuming impotently that business won’t stand up to her, that business has to get on with her, now that she is in charge and has put the government back in the economy.

Now join one of her progresses, say through a shopping mall. Her regal aura is in evidence. But so is a smile that is as real as her anger at the Greens. In return she is respected, for she is the ruler. But also there are the beginnings of something warmer from her subjects — even, here and there, what might have been called in another age love.

This is Good Queen Helen, the reincarnation of Elizabeth I, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance in manner and method and whose reunification of the English people amid the religious wars of the sixteenth century sets Clark, in this bicultural nation of the twenty-first century, a feat to emulate.

Elizabeth, like Clark, was seriously brainy. Elizabeth, like Clark, was determined to keep the nation’s finances in order. Elizabeth, like Clark, was cautious, sometimes supercautious, taking time to reach difficult decisions, exasperating and sometimes confusing her courtiers but vindicated much more often than not. Elizabeth, like Clark, emerged from the rain-shadow of men who could not imagine a mere woman could truly rule. Elizabeth, like Clark, was irascible and charming, hard and compassionate.

Elizabeth ended her reign in firm control. Clark has that already but she is only three years into hers so we must suspend judgment.

Start with her flaws.

We all have flaws. Powerful people’s flaws are more on show. Loyal insiders grumble at Clark’s blind spots.

Flaw No 1 is an imperiousness occasionally bordering on arrogance.

There was no parliamentary, governmental or constitutional need for Clark’s snap election in July, just frustration at the slow progress of legislation, embarrassment over the Alliance’s unseemly circumvention of the waka jumping law — and a naked bid to capitalise on superlative polling before the economy slowed.

Her defenders said the people would decide but that is a tautology and does not legitimise the manoeuvre ex post facto. And the counterfactual was Peter Dunne’s astonishing rise — at least partly a determination to deny an imperious Clark full power.

Flaw No 2: she overreacts — sometimes when under pressure and often when she thinks her integrity or competence has been impugned.

Hence her heavy attack on the Greens when they walked out of Parliament on the genetic modification bill. She thought she had been ambushed, though actually the Green position had softened and the Greens had made no secret of it.

Clark also overkills: the knives flash on the chariot wheels when a flick of the whip would do. When the Alliance produced a poll suggesting Laila Harre was overhauling Lynne Pillay in Waitakere, her comment was to doubt there was a poll.

That buried her intended positive message on the 6pm news that night, itself an attempt to rise above the crabby messages of the previous week. And her forced withdrawal the next night cost her that day’s 6pm slot as well. If she had laughed it off she would have got away her positive message.

Overreaction and overkill demonstrate that underneath the tough exterior, deep inside the layers and layers of self-protective insulation, there is fragility. She was deeply wounded, for example, by the affair of the painting signatures: she was trying to help and was savaged unfairly, as she thought. She resents suggestions of arrogance.

Flaw No 3: she divides the world into friends and enemies, “us” and “them”. Supporters are favoured, which generates resentment. Dissidents can find themselves demonised. As Ross Armstrong found, a friend can suddenly be cast into darkness.

Clark rations loyalty, except for a very small inner circle. She leaves failures to fry; sometimes even fries them herself. Marian Hobbs found that.

There are two dangers in this. Sir Robert Muldoon, another Prime Minister who divided the world into “us” and “them”, eventually found “us-es” outnumbered his “thems”. Divide and rule became divide and fall.

More important than the survival of one Prime Minister, however, is the potential effect on our political system. Over the past 20 years trust in our public institutions has fallen to levels that might eventually corrode our politics. Trust is a risky commodity between individuals in such a rotten game. But the rebuilding of a general trust is a vital need of our democracy.

Flaw No 4: She won’t admit fault. She has yet to acknowledge that she did not just make an error of judgment in signing those paintings — she did wrong. She is nowhere to be seen when her government misses a beat: Michael Cullen has been fronting leaky homes since George Hawkins dropped the ball, the ultimate sin in this cabinet.

Add these flaws up and you get the familiar prime ministerial scowl.

But actually the scowl is most often not a scowl. It is a frown of concentration. And for every scowl there is a smile.

Her weekly post-cabinet press conference often displays all three seasons: a whack and scowl for a critic or a media miscreant; a frowning exposition of some complex or arcane or politically touchy topic; and then, suddenly, wit with a smile.

Those who know the private Clark know that she can be funny, even a little scatological. They know a gossiper. They know someone passionately keen on her job and passionate about her bedrock belief in a world of better and more equal opportunity and generosity to the disadvantaged.

The public Clark is well-prepared, often over-prepared. Clark swots as if for the exam room, comes to the test loaded with detail and background. That is perhaps the biggest difference between her and the error-prone English. Clark doesn’t often get it wrong because she swots beforehand.

A swot must be disciplined. Clark is ruthlessly disciplined, not least in ensuring rest time: even a week off after the election when Wellington was in a fever over the shape of her government.

It is a short step from self-discipline to demanding discipline in others. Clark insists on fiscal strictness. She demands hard work and a safe pair of hands. This is to fashion a competent government. But there is more.

Clark’s big ambition is to reverse National’s dominance of government in the second half of last century. To do that, the ideals of her impressionable years at university are not an adequate guide. She must re-create the sort of government that ran the show when she lived down on the farm in the Waikato.

So she has grasped with both hands the opportunity Dunne’s astonishing electoral fortune gave her to reach across the centre line and lock the right into fragmented impotence.

That is the picture for the moment. Can she cement it in and ensure long-run Labour-led governments?

First, set the flaws in context. Since all powerful figures have flaws, they are not necessarily disabling.

For example, her “us-and-themness” is much more defensive than malice, as in Muldoon’s case, a sign of fragility rather than megalomania. Moreover, some “thems” have chosen the role for themselves.

The more confident she is, the more inclusive she is. That shows in her cooption of people from the National side of politics.

Perceptions of imperiousness and arrogance also owe something to that inner fragility. So does her overreaction and overkill.

And the obverse is strength. Clark commands her government. There have been few prime ministerial equals. Yet her senior ministers are not ciphers; they are significant political figures in their own right. That combination is rare.

And her strength and disciplined quick-thinking lead to an understandable impatience when dealing mostly with people of half her brainpower and application: hence her deserved reputation for micro-managing. insiders insist she is the antithesis of arrogant. They say she is unpretentious to the point almost of humility.

Next, examine Clark’s first three years.

She has repositioned the country internationally. This turns out not to be in the image of the early 1970s anti-Vietnam Labour leftist. In fact, she was quick into the Afghanistan adventure and now is in the Persian Gulf and even contemplating a contribution to an Iraq war.

That sounds pretty much like the alignment National has been mulling over inconclusively. Her prize has been to get this country appended to the Australian free trade negotiations with the United States. And she has got that without relinquishing her strong attachment to multilateral initiatives and solutions.

How did she do that? Partly by impressing the top brass in Washington with her depth of knowledge of international affairs: she is a incisive analyst in her own right. Not since Peter Fraser in the 1940s have we had a Prime Minister who could do that and it has paid quiet dividends from Canberra to Brasilia. Though this must not be exaggerated — after all, she heads a mini-country — she has standing on the international stage.

She has nothing like the same knowledge of economics and the business drivers of economic growth. That was a huge hole in the first year of her prime ministership and she is still unconvincing.

But she has been getting eclectic tuition and she is a quick learner. As she has done that, she has edged a little rightwards — she is now a free trader — and may well be open to more nudging in that direction by Dunne.

She won’t be turning Rogergnome, though. She sees economics through the prism of social and environmental policy.

So she has presided over a broad rebalancing of regulatory law, particularly in the workplace, recentralisation of health and education services, concessions to Maori demands for more influence, a large foray into environmentalism and more power to local councils. She is a keen supporter of sustainable development and the triple bottom line.

This has been a very busy programme and it has some way to go yet, particularly in workplace law and in developing a rigorous definition of and policy around sustainable development. But in the aggregate it has been a relatively moderate shift, compared with the revolutionary leap of the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Moreover Clark has proved ruthlessly adept at recognising danger signals: she reversed out of “closing the gaps” at great speed in late 2000; in February this year she excised a layer of objection to the Kyoto protocol by exempting big emitters. She knows she needs wealth creators and middle New Zealand onside. So her swotting includes pow-wows, focus groups and opinion polls. Hence tougher crime penalties and tighter migration rules.

She is constructing a new centre, a new dominant political language. Sure, she has had luck, an extraordinary constellation of favourable economic winds. But she has made use of her luck. Give her another two terms and not too much economic turbulence and her new centre might be setting the tone of politics for the next 20 years.

If it does, it will be because Clark has drawn together the two great influences of her life. She is the child of the 1950s countryside, a conservative and careful place of solid traditional values. She is the adolescent of university intellectual awakening in heady leftist times. The longer she is in office, the more the child peeps through — though not so as to blind the adolescent.

It might develop into a powerful mixture.

Two years ago on these pages I mused whether Clark might turn out to be our greatest Prime Minister. Since then a surprising and at times puzzling range of people has, unprompted, volunteered to me that observation. It is far too early to tell, of course: she is entering only her second term and our top Prime Ministers did three or more terms each. But on the evidence so far, it cannot be ruled out.

Nevertheless, one ingredient of greatness has so far been missing. Clark cannot paint a picture of her promised land. If this nation is on a journey with Clark, it is one marked whistle-stop by whistle-stop, not mapped in grand vistas.

Clark answers questions about destination with a description of processes and projects: her little credit card is an apt shorthand for her government. At the end perhaps her promised land will materialise in front of our eyes. But will we recognise it as such?

The parallel that most closely fits the Clark style as it is now developing is the Holyoake decade. Like Clark, Sir Keith Holyoake ran a moderate cabinet of able and strong-willed ministers, who made small improvements. He, like her, was a shrewd, able and cautious manager of good times.

That is not to be sneezed at, especially after a revolutionary upheaval. But something more than Holyoakism will be needed if Clark is to meet the greatest challenge facing the nation — if she is to match Elizabeth I’s calming of religious ferocities and construct a new accommodation between Maori and non-Maori whom the Treaty of Waitangi is pulling apart.

On this central point of nation-building the jury is not even out let alone in. We’re still hearing evidence. This Prime Minister is still developing. Check back in a couple of years.