- Daphna Whitmore
The Spark December 2008 - January 2009
The end was swift. Stepping down on election night Helen Clark ended 16 years as the Labour Party’s leader and nine years as Prime Minister. As Labour’s longest serving head, she was one of its most capable and helped shape the organisation into an urban liberal capitalist party.
Clark personified the new type of Labour politician. She came from a middle class farming background and was university educated. She studied politics and lectured for a few years at Auckland University, then headed straight to parliament in 1981.
In 1984 Labour won the elections and launched Rogernomics. There was not a peep of opposition to this rabidly neo-liberal programme from Clark. Later on she would try to distance herself from that period but as David Lange once quipped, Clark “was so dry she was combustible”. According to Michael Basset, who was a minister in that government, Clark begged Roger Douglas to return to the finance minister’s role in January 1990 when the party was rife with internal divisions over Rogernomics.
By 1987 she was a cabinet minister, and in 1989 held the important Health portfolio. She sacked the elected health boards and closed down around 20 hospitals with the sort of gusto that would make any Act MP today proud.
In 1993 she became leader of the party by ousting Mike Moore with the time-honoured method of the knife in the back. Unfortunately for Clark Moore’s vanity wouldn’t let him die a quiet political death, and he haemorrhaged resentment all over the house. The messy takeover left Clark’s popularity rating close to the margin of error for years to come. In 1996 she was nearly toppled by Phil Goff, but she managed to hang on through sheer determination and a new hair do. While Muldoon’s grizzly mug, and the porcine proportions of Lange had never affected their popularity, Clark’s bowl hair cut and makeup-less face were the subject of endless public comment. The sexist scrutiny never entirely went away but her popularity grew with each makeover and in 1999 Labour won the elections and Clark became prime minister.
The new Labour and Alliance coalition had promised to repeal the anti-union Employment Contracts Act. They did that, but the Clark years can in no way be described as a revival of unionism. She kept in place most of the restrictions on strike action and while union membership stopped declining it generally failed to expand. Strikes became more rare each year and the pro-Labour union leadership failed to find a way forward. Whimpering “vote Labour” for decades was never going to be the basis on which to build a strong workers’ movement.
Clark clearly had a desire to make history and she had dreamed of becoming New Zealand’s first woman prime minister, but that prize was Jenny Shipley’s. While Clark’s leadership was seen as a sign that women’s rights were advancing in New Zealand, and a number of top posts were held by women, the gender pay gap remained almost unchanged. Overall, the Clark years were not a period of significant progress for women.
When it came to causes like pay parity or paid parental leave Clark was no trail blazer. Reluctant to even introduce paid parental leave, she proposed a pitiful six week payment. While a campaign outside parliament was building, and inside the government the Alliance Party was promoting legislation for 12 weeks paid parental leave, Clark’s response was to say it would be “over my dead body”. In 2002 the 12 week provision was introduced, and five years later it was extended to 14 weeks. Eventually Clark even talked of extending paid parental leave to 12 months but quickly ditched that idea at the first sign of the financial crisis.
While Clark’s government introduced measures to ease the pressure on the working poor with the Working for Families tax cuts, there was nothing for the most severely impoverished. National’s extreme benefit cuts imposed in 1991 were never reversed by Clark’s government. Throughout this period of significant economic growth, 200,000 children languished in poverty. Their parents were mostly beneficiaries. Meanwhile corporate welfare grew. Despite the common perception that National was the party of tax cuts, it was Labour, not National, that gifted the corporates with tax cuts. Clark cut company taxes from 33 percent to 30 percent in 2007, an echo of Labour’s company tax cuts of 1988.
While the people on the Rich List saw their wealth grow by 300 percent under Clark, the government’s “closing the gaps” policy was short lived. It was supposed to narrow the disparities between Maori and Pakeha but was shelved early on. Labour’s hold over the Maori seats waned as people began to question the value of loyalty to the party. Clark’s handling of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 was uncharacteristically clumsy and was seen by Maori as disenfranchising and arrogant. When the newly formed Maori Party won 4 seats in 2005 Clark was reluctant to engage with the party and referred to it as “the last cab off the rank” at coalition talks. There was a growing sense among Maori that they had been taken for granted by Labour for too long.
Clark was socially liberal but not a champion of full equality. So Muldoon’s anti-abortion legislation remained on the books, while doctors simply ignore the backward restrictions. Civil unions were established but whether this becomes a step forward or a block to full equality is yet to be established.
The campaign to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour was fought outside parliament by Unite union, and supported inside parliament not by Labour but by United Future and New Zealand First. By the time Labour enacted a $12 minimum, three years had passed and the cost of living had soared.
Critics and admirers all agree Clark was a capable manager and leader. Few people could have pleased both warmongers and peaceniks as Clark did. She showed what a close relationship there was with the US when she signed New Zealand up to the “Coalition of the Willing” in the invasion of Afghanistan and sent in SAS forces. She just as effectively positioned New Zealand between the competing US and European powers on the question of Iraq, keeping the US happy with a token involvement in Iraq while not going in boots and all kept her on side with the Europeans. At home this enabled her to maintain an anti-war façade.
Clark’s government has been well supported by big business. With Labour occupying the political “centre” National had little option but to adopt most of Labour’s policies to recapture this ground. In the end Clark’s liberal capitalist party was usurped by Key’s liberal capitalist party. One prime minister moves out, another steps in, seamlessly.