A farm girl, discipline and her helicopter

Colin James on Helen Clark for Management Magazine August 2003

Remember Helengrad? A micromanaging Prime Minister scolding ministers, bureaucrats, journalists and anyone else who got a toe out of line, ruling with an iron hand.
“Were” is the operative word. You don’t hear “Helengrad” much nowadays. A newcomer to Wellington politics-watching I came across a few weeks back hadn’t heard it at all.

That speaks silent volumes about the evolution of Helen Clark’s management. She is across the whole of the government, just as in the Helengrad heyday, but no longer is she so obviously the potentate.

What has changed?

First, the government has matured. In December 1999 only five of the cabinet had had ministerial experience. Now most of the ministers have been there three and a-half years, with relatively little shuffling among portfolios.

They are incumbents now. They know the wheezes, the shortcuts, the drill for dowsing the brushfires which are a cabinet’s daily experience.

They’ve got to know their officials and, some of them, got on top. At least, they are no longer nervous or suspicious of them.

They’ve got through the must-do’s that planted a different ethos in the Beehive. Now their policy slants are status quo. The language of government, for the time being, is Labour.

The second big change in what used to be Helengrad is that Labour is up and National is down. Unease that voters might decamp back to the party that dominated government for half a century has gone.

The turning point that marks every government’s eventual slide from power is not in sight. No government has gone this long without hitting the turning point since Sir Keith Holyoake’s 40 years ago. Perhaps not since Labour’s first turn in 1939 has a government been so high in public estimation in its fourth year.

The centre is Labour’s. The old rival National is thrashing about in the margins.

Which leads to the third big change. Helen Clark is going home.

Home for child Helen was a small farm: quintessential middle New Zealand.

She left for a long OE in academia and the female left of the Labour party. She was there so long that what she learnt makes up much of her style and her policy leanings. But increasingly the farm girl is visible. Example: amidst the dog-bites-girl furore early this year she said dogs are for rounding up cows.

The farm girl is careful with money (the Budget must balance). The farm girl values order. The farm girl is conservative. The farm girl knows how decent middling folk think because a farm girl is one of them. When the Appeal Court ruled the foreshore might be in Maori customary title, the farm girl knew instantly she had to keep it in public hands.

Yes, Clark reads polls. Devours, more like it. But increasingly she trusts her instincts. She very seldom commissions special polls, despite enduring myths to the contrary. The polls are a double-check not a marching order. Their use is to “throw up insights we didn’t pick up”.

More important is listening. Sure, as Prime Minister, she makes pronouncements as an authority. But at least once during a week and often also at the weekend she is out of Wellington mingling with her subjects. Sensible managers walk the floor of their enterprise, listening to the rank and file, learning as well as commanding.

The range she meets is vast: top business to little old pensioners, grandees of the arts to tots at school. Once the wallflower, she now works a room as if born to it. She sponges information. “I am out there so much that is like running one big focus group yourself.”

She instances opening a retirement home: “You’ve got the old people, you’ve got their families, pretty much middle-New Zealand. And you’ve got the lawyers, the architects, the builders, the designers, all associated with the project. You’ve got the race course they are in partnership with.”

Watch closely and you may see her jot down a note (she, by the way, not a flunky). Later, often as late as midnight, the portfolio minister will get a call. What’s the story? Should/can something be done? Action.

“Responsive” is a Clark byword. Yes, there is a programme driven by Labour ideology and attention to friends, which infuriates business and gives opposition parties grist. And Clark has led with stands she thinks might be unpopular, as with the Tampa refugees and Iraq. “You have to have a clear idea of what you want to do.”

But beyond the programme — and often adjusting it — is the old conservative trick of minor alterations to make the existing order work a bit better.

She listens to ministers, too. A senior minister says her door is open. Or rather, her phone is on. “We don’t talk through staff,” she says. “There is constant interaction on the phone.”

The result, she and her ministers agree, is a collegial and coordinated cabinet. To enhance coordination, a Prime Minister’s Department official is assigned to most portfolios.

The constant contact is also partly because she expects early warnings of things going awry (George Hawkins failed last year on leaky homes). It is also because, contrary to legend, ministers say she is supportive. She is also sometimes indulgent, George Hawkins being a prime example and Parekura Horomia another.

She is also tough on ministers. Ruth Dyson got sinbinned for drinking and driving, Marian Hobbs over location perks. Says a minister, she “demands very high standards of everybody”.

She expects ministers to be on top of the issues. If they aren’t, they get “help”. If something goes awry, “don’t let it fester”. A minister says she “judges people by whether something is put right rather than whether something goes wrong.” Paul Swain knows: he got a phone call on holiday in Westland at Christmas when word reached her in England of his musing about lowering the drink-drive blood limit.

It adds up to discipline and attention to detail. Clark still corrects the grammar in letters and she writes most of her own speeches because most audiences “are looking for you to express some opinion, some passion, some interest in what they are doing”.

Clark is famous for conducting morning radio news interviews from bed — “I’m going to hate those phones with video in them” — but she is already at work and will have finished late the night before. She is highly disciplined in her work and private life, to the point almost of presbyterian rectitude.

The negative side of this secular presbyterianism is an inability to climb down off a hook, such as Paintergate and the Al Gore gaffe. Is this a lack of humlity? Or is it defensiveness? It is at least hypersensitivity to some sorts of criticism. It is a chink in her armour.

Her discipline allows her time for her trademark availability to journalists. Speed-dial her and she rings back, mostly.

The cost is that some delicate things better left unsaid in the public interest get her into trouble — her famous advice to hold on to Air New Zealand shares, for example. But the gain is that, while journalists don’t usually slavishly run her line, they know her position. And she trades gossip. Journalists are a useful source of intelligence.

Market intelligence and discipline — and a helicopter style of managing big or vexatious matters.

The helicopter hovers over the whole span of government. She comes to press conferences very well-briefed and with an impressive grasp of the detail of portfolios. If she doesn’t know something she says so. But usually she knows.

She also knows dangerous ground when she sees it. The helicopter stays above some issues. She says little on the Treaty of Waitangi, for example. She keeps herself above failure: the “teflon” Prime Minister, veteran radio press gallery journalist Barry Soper called her as the Horomia affair raged in May without appearing to dent her.

The helicopter drops in from its hover station in two cases. One is to take charge of, or push along, a big issue: climate change was one last year, the infrastructure late last year and early this year. The other is when something goes wrong.

A helicopter landing can sometimes disconcert or diminish a minister, of course. Pete Hodgson was put in a bad light when electricity got the treatment in March.

But, ministers say, she contributes usefully to their portfolios. And both ministers and MPs say she is an excellent chair. Cabinets are structured, a minister says, but “if you are pertinent and adding value”, you get your say, even as an opponent. In an inexpert chair, this can lead to meandering meetings. Clark knows when to curtail debate.

There have been incidents of fury when she has overridden or blocked a minister of MP. But it passes. There are differences in this government — some quite deep — but, remarkably, not splits.

In fact, Clark is managing a party that now, with Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition, encompasses a wide segment of the political spectrum — as it must if it is to set itself as a long-running lead-party of governments.

This is a novelty for a party which has often looked more like a sect than a broad church. Some ministers represent constituencies at odds with each other: John Tamihere for lower-class Maori and Tariana Turia for the protester end of Maoridom. The teflon Prime Minister so far has managed this without serious mishap.

In addition, Clark must manage the Greens to her left and United Future to her right. The reach is very wide and strains patience in the cabinet.

Clark doesn’t enjoy this part of the job. She accepts it is a necessary ingredient of government — especially if she is to achieve her ambition of setting up a long-run alliance that locks National out of office.

Nevertheless, she puts real effort into her two support parties. Peter Dunne in particular is effusive about the way she has treated his party of tenderfoots — and her treatment of him over the years since his estrangement in 1994.

The Clark of legend would have cut him off. The actual living Clark remained on good terms with him. The Clark of legend bears vindictive grudges — and there are living examples. But the actual living Clark was able to put behind her the bitter personal split in 1989 with Anderton.

Now climb back in the helicopter. Look down while Clark is scudding off to some provincial or marae meeting or carrying the flag in distant capitals and who do you see in charge? Michael Cullen, Deputy Prime Minister.

Cullen is Clark’s match in IQ. He, too, is disciplined and highly respected in the cabinet and caucus. He, too, has a wide and detailed grasp of government business. And he doesn’t want Clark’s job.

Cullen holds the fort in Wellington while she travels. He looks after her correspondence which is not strictly prime ministerial in nature. He convenes ministerial groups to deal with the tough issues: infrastructure, the Maori seabed claim, Air New Zealand, TranzRail.

There is a difference between them: keeping to time. A Clark trademark is to cram in too much, making her her late. Her weekly press conference habitually starts 10 minutes to a quarter-hour late. When Cullen fills in they start bang on time — once, a minute or two early.

To Cullen add a third central figure in the government, chief of staff Heather Simpson — nickname H2. Simpson, originally an economist, was an influential adviser and gatekeeper when Clark was Health Minister in the late 1980s and has been with her since.

Simpson knows Clark so intimately she can speak for her, do the inter-party negotiating and horse-trade with ministers’ offices with authority. She is an extra pair of eyes and ears for Clark. They work as a team. “Heather is across everything,” says a senior minister, without rancour. Clark calls her an “anchor” and says she “represents my views around the whole [Beehive] building”.

But Simpson is not an alter ego for Clark, nor, as some think, a surrogate Prime Minister. She is the subordinate. Clark is in charge.

But to what end?

Clark is not a visionary leader. She is rooted in the present and the practical and sees leadership as serving the public. Her attempt at a “vision” at the Knowledge Wave conference in February stirred no hearts and minds.

She is, in the jargon, a transactional leader, not a transformational one. There are guiding principles and objectives and they involve change in the economy, society, the environment and foreign policy. But there is not a distant point on the horizon to which she wants to lead us.

She is about creating a new centre in politics, not ripping it apart. That frustrates those in business who want a rerun of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. It soothes ordinary folk who have had enough of revolution.

Sounds dull. In fact, Clark’s government is very busy. There is a constant buzz of modest reform. For the journalist, keeping fully abreast is a big ask.

And for Clark it is fun. “When it’s not fun, it’s time to stop doing it.” Managers who have fun are likely to be successful managers. So far, Clark is.

Q: Do you have a sense of how long you intend to do this job?

C: Nope. It’s open-ended.

Q: Do you consider or bother about succession?

C: No. I wouldn’t have thought succession would be a problem.