Helen Clark during her tenure as the boss of the UN Development Programme (Getty Images)

‘So much unfinished business’: Helen Clark on feminism, factions and equality

Helen Clark is back, with a new book collecting her speeches from four decades in public life. She sat down with Alex Braae to discuss her extraordinary career, and where she’s headed next.

In the many years Helen Clark has been involved in politics, firstly in New Zealand, and later at the United Nations, she has maintained strongly held feminist convictions. She has seen and done more over her career than all but a few politicians will accomplish. For the first time since 1981 she’s no longer officially involved in politics, and she appears relaxed.

In conversation with Noelle McCarthy to promote her book of speeches – Women, Equality, Power – Clark was received with a surprising amount of laughter and spontaneous applause by the audience at the LATE at the Museum event. It was an audience that remembered the contribution she has made to New Zealand’s public life, and then watched her take a lead role on the world stage, and was on this evening given a candid view in to her career not often seen when she held official roles in New Zealand’s parliament, then at the UN.

But in a world where previous ways of thinking are constantly being upended, what does Helen Clark make of those changes?

Helen Clark and Noelle McCarthy at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. (Image: Supplied)

Do you consider yourself to be part of any particular feminist tradition or school of thought?

I think I’m part of the second wave, that was mobilised by Germaine Greer and others who I mentioned favourably last night. I think the first wave was the suffragettes, and people who fought for political participation. Then there was two world wars, and women were preoccupied with other things. And then the baby boomer generation starts to burst up, and takes a lot of positions. And then momentum slowed again, but it’s back now with a vengeance with Me Too, and the exposure of sexual and gender based violence.

In terms of the second wave, and Germaine Greer, what do you make of the generational changes in feminism? Greer in particular has faced criticism from some feminists recently for particular stances she’s taken. Do you keep up with those changes in thought?

Not really, I keep backing equal rights for women across the board, and there’s so much unfinished business in that respect: 155 countries – according to the World Bank – have at least one law that discriminates against women. With the parlous state of political participation, and the big gap in the workforce and pay, the unpaid work and care burden, violence issues, so I just get on and work on the issues.

So it’s a broad church approach for you?

Mine’s a broad church, I don’t identify with factions.

You’ve always been a strong advocate for women in leadership positions – and in recent years, there have been critiques from various branches of feminism that having women in leadership positions isn’t necessarily the best metric for measuring success for all women. What do you make of that?

Well, if they weren’t there, it would be worse. Even if a woman in a high leadership does nothing for women in policy terms, the mere fact that she is there is a signal that women can do these things. So it is important in its own right, but even better if power is used to do something positive to advance women.

I think about the example you mentioned at the Late at the Museum talk of former finance minister Ruth Richardson and her baby in parliament, which was incredibly pioneering. But she also delivered the 1991 budget, that made life a lot more difficult for a lot of women. Does that undermine the case for having a focus on getting women into leadership positions?

It doesn’t undermine it, it just reminds us that women come with a whole range of political opinions as well. In our country, from ACT to what was Alliance, women don’t think of one mind. For me there’s two issues, one that women as of right should be represented. But I’ve staked out a position in the political spectrum that says I stand for certain things, for women and for people in general that I think would make life better.

Some of your reforms – like, Working for Families for example, were pretty much adopted by the incoming Key government. Do you wish in hindsight that your government had made more radical changes if the next lot were going to pick them up?

It’s interesting – Labour has a great tradition of reforming governments, and ours was a reforming government, a lot of things happened. Virtually nothing gets changed. National governments fiddle with employment relations laws, they make it tougher for collective bargaining and representation, that’s almost an article of faith for them. And it’s almost an article of faith for Labour to swing the pendulum back a bit again. On the social side, they tend to invest rather less, so you’ll find that things that you set up, like 20 hours of free Early Childhood Education, become a little tattered. But by and large, conservatism New Zealand style tends to adapt to a status quo, and not innovate so much.

What specific reforms or battles in the area of gender equality in particular do you believe were conclusively won during your time in government?

Paid parental leave as of right in law was very important. While women who were unionised had access, most people aren’t unionised, so to have that right set in law was critical.

There’s a lot of things we did – the student loans being interest free if you stayed in New Zealand was particularly important for women. And I think it’s always important to bring a gendered lens to these policies, because under the extortionate system that was there, most women would not have paid off their loans before they retired – some not before they died. This is not sustainable debt, so you have to look at something that won’t put people in that long term debt position.

So the book of your speeches – your valedictory speech to parliament comes about halfway through it. Obviously the UNDP job was already lined up –

Well, when I left parliament it was, but when I left being PM it wasn’t. I hadn’t been working on Plan B.

Right, but when you made that speech, were you aware that you had so much ahead of you?

Oh yes, because I left that job at 58, and who retires at 58? So I was looking at what door might open, and that one did, and it gave me a very interesting eight years.

And what about now – what does political work look like for you now?

I think a number of democracies are struggling. The institutions in the United States are under serious pressure – I think there will be a course correction, it’s just a question of when. But you look at some of the more recent democracies, you might say transitional democracies in the European Union like Hungary and Poland, they’re struggling. And in France I believe you have to hope Macron does well, because he’s almost the last defence against the Le Pen family, he’s the last one standing. Italy’s political system is under severe challenge, and it’s a founding member of the EU. So these are difficult times.

Will you ever run for election again?

No, no interest at all. Been there, done that. I won 10 elections as MP for Mt Albert, and I contested one in Piako. That’s enough.

Which election was the hardest?

Oh, goodness. The 1990 one was hard, as was the 2008 election. And they were both defeats. But in the 27 years I was there, 12 were in government, so by the law of averages that’s a good career. The man who preceded me in Mt Albert had 33 years, and three as a minister. I had 12. His party was in government for eight of the 34 years, which would have been soul-destroying.

OK, so not running for election again. But former PM Jim Bolger is leading the government’s employment relations working group – have you had any discussions with the government about jobs that they might ask you to do?

No, and I’m not interested. I have a global platform and I’m focusing on that. So that keeps me pretty fully engaged, and if it wasn’t for the 125th anniversary of the Suffragettes, and the book, and Gaylene’s film [Preston’s My Year with Helen] going around, you wouldn’t be hearing much from me at all, because I’m largely focused on offshore things.

So what are those offshore things?

Well there’s endless demand for being at conferences, events, retreats, to be on advisory boards, chair a commission of this or that. For example I co-chair an advisory board for a new public fund that the Norwegian government has invested heavily in, which is endeavouring to contribute to stopping tropical deforestation, which is so critical for biodiversity and climate change. I’m on the advisory board of Women Deliver, which is a major Women’s Advocacy NGO. I’m co-chairing a commission for UNICEF and the WHO on children’s health. There’s a number of things like that, and they just keep coming, but I turn down a lot.

Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern at the Labour campaign launch in August 2017. Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images

Do you still keep an eye on New Zealand politics?

Well, I’m travelling a lot, and I can’t say I keep an eye on the New Zealand sites as a matter of course. But, you know, I have Peter at home raging about this and that, so there’s not a lot that goes on that you don’t hear about one way or another, but it’s not my priority.

It strikes me that Jacinda Ardern faces some of the same problems in the day to day governing of the country that you had – wayward ministers, low business confidence.

Oh absolutely, first year, same thing. Some ministers don’t behave, and the business community – or sections of it – when they’re in revolt, you just have to work your way through it, as Jacinda is doing. And throughout all the good years of economic growth we had, and low unemployment, the headline business confidence figure remained rubbish. But generally people were much more optimistic about their own company’s prospects. So just factor it in that while Labour does have some champions in the business community, it has a lot that are pledged to its undoing, and their sentiment will be played out in those indicators.

Would you want to still be in day to day politics in the age of social media?

Oh yeah, I think it would be very interesting, much more interesting than when I was there, because you can communicate so directly with the constituency, and particularly the ability to connect with youth voters in a way that wasn’t possible with mainstream media.


The next LATE at the Museum, on Wednesday 10 October, focuses on the fascinating field of CRISPR gene-editing. We explore the fast pace of change in our ethical landscape when it comes to genetic science and how its developments influence our society. Read more here, and book now.

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