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.