Guyon Espiner’s excellent RNZ series The 9th Floor, consists of interviews with five ex NZ PMs: Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark.
Here’s the one we’ve all been waiting for – Helen Clark:
The Commander – Helen Clark
In part five of The 9th Floor, Guyon Espiner talks to Helen Clark about her three terms in power as she sought to draw a line under Rogernomics, unleash new social reforms and rethink New Zealand’s place in the world.
No one doubted who was in charge when Clark finally got the role in 1999. Once, when Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Michael Cullen was asked what the government was going to do about some thorny issue, he replied: “Well, the government has gone skiing.” Clark enjoyed that memory when we raised it during the day we spent with her in Auckland, as she came home from New York for a brief Christmas holiday. “That’s a good line,” she chuckled. But it’s more than that. That story, and this interview, illustrate the degree to which the power of Prime Minister resides with the person, more so than with the office.
After researching and conducting interviews with five former Prime Ministers it’s a strange feeling to realise that the job doesn’t exist. There is no job description. You can take a chair of the board, consensus approach and delegate power to Ministers as steward of the Cabinet or you can be master and commander.
“We don’t have a written constitution so nowhere is it written down what are the powers of the Prime Minister. It’s partly your personality. It’s the skills that you’ve got and it’s how you use the office,” Clark says.
My feeling was that, such was her dominance, if Clark said something out loud, then it would happen. She largely agrees, adding that “what you say in public you need to have thought about because if you say it, it’s going to happen”.
We talk about all of the big decisions. What was the pressure like from friends and allies as she made the call to stay out of the Iraq War? How did she convince the public that taking Tampa refugees was a good idea when the first polls she saw showed massive opposition?
Why did she cut beneficiaries out of the Working for Families tax credit package and leave headline benefit rates (although adjusted for inflation), where they’d been since the 1991 Mother of All Budgets?
Did she really believe that access to the beach was under threat from Maori claims to the foreshore and seabed? How great was the political temptation to ditch the ‘anti-smacking’ law when the backlash became clear?
Clark is the best known of the Prime Ministers we interviewed. She was our first mass media Prime Minister, interviewed morning, noon and night. But her nine years on the ninth floor look different, nine years after leaving office.
Unlike Key, it was the voters who decided Clark’s time of departure. We discuss that too and her thoughts on what it is like to lose power are as interesting as how she sought to hold power and to exercise it.
Check out RNZ for the full interview.
— Morning Report (@NZMorningReport) May 4, 2017
— Helen Clark (@HelenClarkNZ) May 4, 2017