He­len Clark: our for­mer Prime Min­is­ter is ready to lead the world

For­mer New Zealand PM He­len Clark is a favourite for the po­si­tion of UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral. In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, He­len tells Josephine Tovey why, at 66, she’s tak­ing on the big­gest chal­lenge of her life.


No mat­ter how busy she is, or where she is in the world, there’s one thing He­len Clark does at the end of each day. She picks up the phone to call her 94-yearold dad, Ge­orge, back home in New Zealand. “Proof of life and health,” she says, with a flash of rare and mildly sar­donic an­tipodean hu­mour.

It’s a sim­ple enough ges­ture – an un­mis­tak­able nod to her grass­roots up­bring­ing on a farm in the Waikato – but also one that re­veals her deep con­nec­tion to home as she seeks to not just take on the world, but per­haps lead it.

Now in her sev­enth decade, He­len Clark, still af­fec­tion­ately known at home to mil­lions of Ki­wis as “Aunty He­len”, has al­ready had a life of stag­ger­ing achieve­ment, prov­ing the naysay­ers and doubters wrong.

The first woman elected as New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter, He­len moved to New York in 2009, a year after leav­ing po­lit­i­cal of­fice, to be­come the third most se­nior di­plo­mat at the UN. In her cur­rent role, as Ad­min­is­tra­tor of the UN Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme, she grap­ples with the big chal­lenges of world poverty and sus­tain­abil­ity.

He­len’s tilt at the top job is one she is do­ing with more than just her

fam­ily and her own coun­try be­hind her. A re­cent poll found support for He­len’s can­di­dacy among Aus­tralians is twice as strong as the back­ing for their own for­mer Prime Min­is­ter, Kevin Rudd, who also his eye on the role.

The Aus­tralian Woman’s Weekly de­cided to catch up with He­len Clark in New York, to be­come ac­quainted with the woman who could be­come the next leader of the world.

At a time of life when most of her peers are em­bark­ing on, or at least think­ing about, re­tire­ment, this al­ways un­con­ven­tional woman is now hop­ing to take on the big­gest job of her life: Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral of the UN.

“Re­tire­ment has never been in my vo­cab­u­lary,” He­len says, sit­ting on a leather couch in the New

Zealand am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence in New York, in front of panoramic win­dows re­veal­ing the im­pos­ing UN head­quar­ters just me­tres away across First Av­enue.

“I’m of the view you keep of­fer­ing what you’ve got to of­fer. What­ever the out­come of this, I’ll be out do­ing things be­cause that’s me. You won’t ever find me on a golf course, I can guar­an­tee that. I find golf too slow. I say I’m too young for it,” she says, with a deep laugh.

Apart from the phone calls to Dad, there is an­other way He­len main­tains her pres­ence in the lives of loved ones back in New Zealand, though this one was not of her choos­ing. She and her hus­band, Peter Davis, who is a Pro­fes­sor of So­ci­ol­ogy at Auck­land Uni­ver­sity, live apart much of the time, with jobs on op­po­site sides of the Pa­cific Ocean.

While she has con­ceded pre­vi­ously

“My par­ents had no sons… they wanted the best for their girls.”

that mar­riage it­self wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily im­por­tant to her and that pres­sure for women in pub­lic life to be mar­ried played a role in their de­ci­sion to wed 35 years ago, the en­durance of the re­la­tion­ship speaks for it­self. In the gar­den of their sub­ur­ban Mount Eden home, Peter has a per­ma­nent trib­ute to her: a mu­ral he com­mis­sioned of his wife, dressed in a Su­per­woman out­fit, soar­ing over New York City.

“It was a bit of a joke, but he likes it, he’s very proud of it,” she tells me, with an al­most em­bar­rassed chuckle.

“I just laughed. I per­son­ally wouldn’t have wasted the money on it… I think it was my Christmas present.”

Dressed in crisp white suit trousers and a white blouse, a pair of eye­catch­ing red vel­vet flat shoes on her feet and her slightly grey­ing hair trimmed neatly around her face, to­day He­len cuts a pro­fes­sional yet char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­fussy fig­ure.

Though not a vowel of her Kiwi ac­cent has changed, she has made a second home amid the iconic bus­tle of Man­hat­tan over the past seven years.

“I like New York, it’s got such fan­tas­tic arts and cul­ture,” says

He­len, who is an avowed opera buff. She nom­i­nates the tow­er­ing me­trop­o­lis’ only real patch of green, Cen­tral Park, as her favourite place to be. Yet she ad­mits she can’t get to the opera or the park very often with her busy sched­ule.

“But I make sure I get at least 30 min­utes’ walk a day,” she says.

“It might just be trot­ting along the East River, or around some of the blocks, al­ways look­ing for what you might Snapchat.”

Like many mod­ern politi­cians, she’s a pro­lific user of so­cial me­dia, but – in con­trast to fel­low can­di­date Rudd – her ac­counts are a selfie-free zone, pre­fer­ring to keep her cam­era turned out­wards at the world around her, which fas­ci­nates her end­lessly.

Though phones and Face­book keep her in touch with her ex­tended fam­ily, she re­turns to New Zealand as fre­quently as she can, im­mers­ing her­self in two things New York City can’t pro­vide her with: fam­ily life and quiet wilder­ness.

“I spend most of my time [at home] at Waihi Beach, where my fa­ther lives,” she says. Her mother, Mar­garet, passed away in 2011.

“Nor­mally, I would go ski­ing for a week in Au­gust. In the Christmas pe­riod, I like to do a lot of bush­walk­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally I even get in the sea.”

The globe-trot­ting life He­len lives now is noth­ing like her up­bring­ing on a back-coun­try dairy farm in the Waikato.

It was a sim­ple ru­ral childhood. Her par­ents, Ge­orge and Mar­garet, had four daugh­ters, of whom He­len was the old­est.

“When you grow up in New Zealand, it was a very safe, se­cure world and you re­ally didn’t feel any bar­ri­ers,” she says.

“Even as a girl you didn’t feel any bar­ri­ers. Maybe I was lucky, my par­ents had no sons… so of course they wanted the best for their girls.”

She had no con­cep­tion of boys’ or girls’ jobs grow­ing up and it was in­stilled in her at a very young age that girls could do any­thing.

“Every­body should have that,” He­len says.

Yet the prospect of a ca­reer in pol­i­tics for a girl was some­thing even she couldn’t have dreamed of in the 1950s. Decades later, chil­dren used to ask He­len if she had as­pired to be Prime Min­is­ter when she was a kid. “I could only re­ply that I could not have re­motely imag­ined that be­ing possible,” she said in her vale­dic­tory speech to Par­lia­ment.

Like so many peo­ple of her gen­er­a­tion, she be­came po­lit­i­cally ac­tive, rad­i­cal even, at uni­ver­sity in the late 1960s, at the height of the anti-Viet­nam War move­ment, and even­tu­ally joined the Labour Party, win­ning a seat for the first time in 1981.

Though a de­ter­mined leader, the me­dia spot­light was some­thing He­len has never rel­ished. She isn’t one for van­ity or fuss and as the first woman elected Prime Min­is­ter, at a gen­eral elec­tion in 1999, she faced in­tense and often acer­bic scru­tiny of her clothes, hair­style and voice, as well as her and Peter’s de­ci­sion not to have chil­dren. This con­trib­uted to ac­cu­sa­tions of her “hos­til­ity to the nu­clear fam­ily”, as one male jour­nal­ist cru­elly put it in 2003.

Just weeks before our in­ter­view, the new Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May had been ap­pointed after a bruis­ing con­test in which her close ri­val, An­drea Lead­som, sug­gested Mrs May was less in­vested in the fu­ture of the coun­try be­cause she had no kids. It struck a chord.

“I mean, that is just so ridicu­lous,” says He­len to­day, shak­ing her head in dis­be­lief, “and it was some­thing that I put up with for years.”

The fact the re­mark was crit­i­cised, though, was telling, she says. “Whereas when it was be­ing raised as an is­sue with me, the me­dia didn’t re­ally at­tack it in the same way, so that means things have moved on.”

Un­like Aus­tralia’s first fe­male Prime

Min­is­ter, Ju­lia Gil­lard, who fa­mously de­nounced the sex­ism that she had en­dured in a fiery 2012 speech, He­len never hit back in a big way.

“I think the last thing you ever want to do with any of these petty things is to com­ment on them.

Be­cause it might in­di­cate that you gave them even a mo­ment’s thought,” she says.

Yet, she adds, she doesn’t see what she and Ju­lia Gil­lard en­dured as the same. “Dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion, dif­fer­ent re­sponse,” she says.

Grant Robert­son, a for­mer ad­vi­sor of He­len’s when she was PM and now a Labour MP him­self, said he be­lieves that, de­spite be­ing an un­con­ven­tional woman, He­len pre­vailed be­cause she re­mained true to her­self and got on with the job.

“She won New Zealan­ders over,” he told The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly.

“Through her hard work, ob­vi­ous au­then­tic­ity, her huge in­tel­lec­tual ca­pa­bil­ity and some pretty good po­lit­i­cal instincts, she just over­came all that.”

Her be­liefs in so­cial jus­tice and fair­ness are deeply held, he says, and her work ethic is like no one he’s seen before or since.

There was also a strong sense, Grant says, that she rep­re­sented New Zealand well on the world stage, too, stand­ing up against enor­mous pres­sure to join the war in Iraq, or tak­ing asy­lum seek­ers from the Tampa dur­ing the stand-off with Aus­tralia in 2001. Those acts en­gen­dered re­spect for her at home.

“She’s re­ferred to as ‘Aunty He­len’ by a lot of New Zealan­ders now – that’s a real term of en­dear­ment,” he says.

For Maori, the word ‘aunty’ goes be­yond blood rel­a­tives to women who are re­spected and con­sid­ered part of the fam­ily. Now it’s used by the wider pop­u­la­tion as a term of real af­fec­tion.

It wasn’t all smooth sail­ing of course, with her Labour gov­ern­ment be­ing booted out after nine years by cur­rent con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter John Key.

Yet now Mr Key, her old foe, has been spruik­ing her UN can­di­dacy around the world, re­cently giv­ing or­ders for New Zealand’s diplo­mats over­seas to back her cam­paign, and fans are sell­ing “Aunty He­len for UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral” T-shirts in support.

While usu­ally a se­cre­tive process, the cam­paign­ing for the top UN job is be­ing con­ducted in the open this time around and He­len has not been afraid to put that tire­less de­ter­mi­na­tion and frank au­then­tic­ity on dis­play.

“I have come from the out­side of ev­ery­thing I have done,” she told the UN re­cently, dur­ing a gru­elling twohour pub­lic in­ter­view for the job. “From a ru­ral up­bring­ing to ur­ban set­tings, as a woman break­ing into a man’s world... I come from out of the box and I will al­ways be a bit out of the box, and look­ing at how to, in my work, cre­ate a lad­der for oth­ers and to have a fair go.”

So can she ac­tu­ally win the job?

The in­ter­na­tional re­cep­tion seems to be pos­i­tive and she has re­peat­edly ar­tic­u­lated a strong vi­sion to take charge and lead at a time of in­cred­i­ble global tur­moil.

“We live in a trou­bled world, with huge in­equal­i­ties,” she says. “There is dis­crim­i­na­tion and marginal­i­sa­tion, there is a lot of con­flict.

“My ar­gu­ment has been, with the mess the world is in, you need some­one with a leader pro­file who can re­ally take the or­gan­i­sa­tion forward.”

It is widely known that many of the coun­tries on the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil want a fe­male leader this time, that it’s over­due. Yet many also re­gard it as Eastern Europe’s turn be­cause the re­gion has never pro­duced a Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral before. Nei­ther has New Zealand, of course, but we be­long to a block with

Western Europe, to He­len’s detri­ment. A de­ci­sion is ex­pected by Oc­to­ber.

He­len wouldn’t com­ment on how she rated her chances. “I’m ac­knowl­edged as a very se­ri­ous can­di­date, but in the end, this is about geopolitics,” she said. Each of the five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, which in­cludes the US and Rus­sia, can veto a can­di­date. Some com­men­ta­tors have sug­gested that He­len may be too left-wing for the Amer­i­cans.

Even with those ob­sta­cles, though, she’s not con­tem­plat­ing a Plan B. “I only ever have one plan at a time,” she says. “My ex­pe­ri­ence in life has been that one door closes, an­other opens. I’ll never be short of things to do.”

Above: The new leader of the NZ Labour Party gets a kiss from her hus­band, Peter Davis, in 1993. Be­low: He­len’s maiden speech to Par­lia­ment in 1982. Right: At uni­ver­sity in the 1970s, He­len was po­lit­i­cally ac­tive as a Labour Party youth ad­vi­sor.

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