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PoliticsMay 8, 2017

Stop saying Helen Clark was NZ’s first elected woman PM. It’s wrong and it’s sexist


The shorthand used in The 9th Floor insinuates that Jenny Shipley’s prime ministership was somehow less legitimate than that of her successor, and that’s just not true, argues Paul Brislen.

I’ve really enjoyed Guyon Espiner’s The Ninth Floor series of interviews for RNZ with former prime ministers of New Zealand. I’ve learned a lot about Mike Moore that I didn’t know, had an enjoyable time of it listening to Geoffrey Palmer and was looking forward to the Helen Clark interview.

Sadly, Guyon ruined my Sunday morning lie-in with his opening words.

After a brief clip from Helen, Guyon began by saying, “But that time at the top as New Zealand’s first elected woman prime minister nearly didn’t happen at all,” and that was that. An error, surely, because unless I’ve slipped into an alternate time line, Jenny Shipley was our first elected woman prime minister.

I got out of bed and looked it up on Wikipedia. Yes, there it was. Jenny Shipley was New Zealand’s 36th prime minister, from December 1997 to December 1999, and Helen Clark was New Zealand’s 37th PM, from 1999 to 2008.

Of course the distinction is implied by the use of the word “elected”. That is, Helen Clark was the party leader when she led her party to victory and Jenny Shipley was not – she rolled Jim Bolger and became PM between elections. It suggests that Helen Clark’s prime ministership was somehow more legitimate than Jenny Shipley’s and that’s simply not true.

Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley on RNZ’s 9th Floor. Photos: DIEGO OPATOWSKI

Shipley was elected to the role of prime minister as all the prime ministers before her and all those since. There was no fakery to her election to the role – she was properly and duly elected just as Helen Clark was. Those given the task of choosing a PM met, and made that decision. To describe Helen Clark as the first “elected” prime minister is to suggest that Jenny Shipley was not “elected” and that’s wrong.

Does it matter?

For the last 24 hours I’ve been told loudly on Twitter and by my wife that it does not. Everyone knows that Jenny Shipley was the first woman prime minister of New Zealand and that Helen Clark is the first “properly elected” woman prime minister and that’s that.

But I think it does matter. We have a problem with women in leadership roles in general in western civilisation. New Zealand has only had two women prime ministers and to suggest that 50% of them were somehow less legitimately elected than the others is ridiculous and frankly quite sexist. We don’t seem to have the same issue with the prime ministers who came to power between elections and who happen to be men.

There also appears to be an idea that the left can claim some kind of legitimacy from having the first woman prime minister that otherwise would be missing. This, too, is absurd – just look at the legacy both women have left and deal with the facts, not the myth. I think it smacks of a lack of confidence that the left regularly exhibits that should be stamped out. It’s unneeded and it undermines the actual successes that have provably occurred.

And in an MMP environment trying to suggest that prime ministers who come to the role between elections instead of at elections are somehow worth less than those who win elections is also quite a dangerous thing. New Zealand’s electoral system is vastly different to the US one (where the president and the legislature are chosen separately) and I for one am quite pleased about that. Having a leader who doesn’t have a majority in the House risks having someone in charge who isn’t capable of leading the country. They literally cannot get their policies enacted. Having the major party or parties lead the policy delivery role that is the key reason for having a government in the first place makes a great deal of sense and any move away from that is a bad thing in my view. I would expect to see more prime ministers in future who come to the office between elections and that’s a very good result if only from a cost perspective.

I believe Helen Clark was a better prime minister than Jenny Shipley. I believe she achieved more, lasted longer, kept her government together and delivered a more coherent platform of policies over a longer period of time. I believe she was right to send troops to Afghanistan and right to keep them out of Iraq. I believe the anti-smacking legislation and the decriminalisation of prostitution were both moves to a more civil society and we are better off as a result.

I believe she was the first woman party leader to lead her party to victory and that she did so three times, but I do not believe she was the first elected woman prime minister of New Zealand, because she probably was not any more than I was.

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