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RNZ: The 9th floor – Clark

Written By: - Date published: 9:31 am, May 5th, 2017 - 29 comments
Categories: helen clark, history, journalism - Tags: , , , ,

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.

On The Spinoff: ‘I have no regrets. Never look back’ – Helen Clark on nine years as prime minister


29 comments on “RNZ: The 9th floor – Clark ”

  1. roy cartland 1

    No regrets… but at least she did helluva more good than harm.

  2. What does ‘no regrets’ mean?

    got everything right?
    would do everything exactly the same again?
    with hindsight I got it perfect first time?

    bit of a funny one when you dig into this “no regrets” – total confidence and arrogance in a persons own belief in their abilities and opinions. A superior attitude not borne out by human nature, history or interrelationships between people and peoples imo.

    • dukeofurl 2.1

      The sort of people who achieve these sort of jobs arent the ‘only if’ types. Yes its the illusion of infallibity.
      Anyway this Espinor gig is just a once over lightly through the headlines of years not so long gone by.
      Its not till , say cabinet papers are released under the 30 year rule ?, that you can see more closely what was missed.

      • marty mars 2.1.1

        would you trust anyone who said they had no regrets? imo it is just a clumsy lie for no good reason too – or maybe showing very little empathy and/or ability to reevaluate decisions because of an arrogant belief in infallibility, or perhaps it is just straight pride.

        i think when the truth gets written they are all long dead and often forgotten too so it doesn’t really matter

        • Johan

          mm, “would you trust anyone who said they had no regrets?” It’s time to live in the real world of greys instead of black and white. If we had a dictatorship in New Zealand, you can have your wish, but we don’t. In a democratic country you don’t always get what you want, there is and always will be “give and take” in the decision making process.

          • marty mars

            saying ‘no regrets’ is black and white thinking – saying yes of course there are somethings in retrospect I may have done differently with hindsight and the greater knowledge I now have due to the years passing and the other people involved discussing their views and how things affected them – after all I am not an island am I? is shades of grey thinking.

            • Sanctuary

              I have no regrets about my life. There are some things I wish I had done differently, but they all helped shape the wonderful person I am today, so how can I regret them?

              • you don’t know the wonderful person you may have become if after contemplating where improvements could be made (regrets), you made them.

                and it is great you have reached acceptance, probably happiness.

    • mac1 2.2

      What does ‘no regrets’ mean? What did Helen Clark mean?

      I googled the meaning of this term and here are more two interesting takes on this.

      “To me, someone saying that they have no regrets means that they feel like everything they experienced in their past has had some meaning in their lives.”

      And, “The quotes means to do things that you won’t regret, not to not regret bad decisions. That being said, everyone is human and makes errors, but to dwell on an error serves no purpose. I live by this motto and truly don’t regret any of my actions because I have done nothing to INTENTIONALLY hurt anyone else. The mistakes I have made in my life have taught me a better way to live, and therefore I do not regret them. Without them, I would not be who I am today and I am truly very happy with who I am.”

      • marty mars 2.2.1

        good points

      • Karen 2.2.2

        I think the key to what Helen Clark meant was in the beginning of the interview where she says she is very stubborn and puts it down to her Yorkshire heritage. That gelled with me because my father’s parents came from Yorkshire and he was was an extremely stubborn man. I loved him to pieces but it could be very frustrating as it didn’t matter how much evidence you provided that he was wrong he would never admit it.

        With Helen her refusal to look backwards and admit mistakes is partly pragmatism but it is also a character flaw. She apologised on the part of the NZ government for the treatment of the Chinese during the poll tax period and the shooting dead of Samoan protesters in 1929 but she refuses to acknowledge any personal mistakes she made during her time as PM. And she did make mistakes.

        • WILD KATIPO

          Yorkshire, huh ?… Clark ,… seems like an Anglicised
          Scots borders name … and never to be trusted.

          My lot were Clan Gunn from the far north ,… the first and only Clan to come down fully armed and ready for a stouch with the English emissary who was charged with kicking off the Highland clearances,…

          The problem was,… both party’s couldn’t understand each other’s language so couldn’t tell if they wanted to start a fight or invite them home for tea,…

          So the dour Clan Gunners milled around a bit then stomped off back home back to where they came from ,…


    • Grafton Gully 2.3


      I reckon Clark, as a child of the 60s would have known of this song and possibly used it to help with her french accent for the UN job.

      “Clark looks likely to have the support of Britain and maybe France though Clark’s lack of French language skills will count against her and not just with the French (she is said to be boning up on the language).”


  3. David Mac 3

    Yes, the term ‘no regrets’ does not exclude reflection or doing it differently next time.

    I think it means, I can’t change what I did yesterday so I’m not going to bash myself up over it.

    • fair point


      yes I drank too much alcohol and crashed my car and killed two people and then I did a course and got qualified and now teach people not to drink and drive and my life is really cool helping others and I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t been through everything I went through including the really tough stuff so because I like my life now and myself now I have no regrets because my life warts and all have got me to this place. If I regretted or changed something then I wouldn’t be here in this place now.

      The two people that died? ummm what point are you trying to make?

  4. Karen 4

    E kore a muri e hokia.

    But that shouldn’t mean no regrets or that your personal learning experience somehow obviates the damage you may have done.

    • I had no particular liking for any of these post 1984 Douglas era type PM ‘s.

      I didn’t see any of them reversing the damage Douglas did. And that goes for Clark as well. She was just a tinkerer and an apologist. If you were to compare Norman Kirk and Clark , Clark would be found wanting – despite the change in issues and the subversiveness of Douglas.

      I’m sure they all had a few points of redemption , – but that would depend on who you spoke to. Especially if you were a Business Roundtable member.

      I wont be celebrating Clark – she did nothing to rescind the damage of neo liberalism.

      She just apologized and appeased for it.

  5. millsy 5

    Did anyone catch what she said about (not reversing) Richardson’s benefit cuts?

  6. Smilin 6

    the foreshore and seabed was a bloody big nail in the coffin for labour and she was being manipulated by the oil companies to implement it
    Really it should never have been an issue it was racist and opened the door for that kind of action prevalent in the current govt
    The benefits in principle were a neo liberal cop out on her part whether she was aware of it but in view of the cost of living during her time not really an issue .More was the takeover of the economy by stealth by the likes of Key and his arrogant misery as he lied his way into the office
    As for the right she was far too easy on them when Key was on the rise
    They got away with far too much bullshit that really bordered on treason and quite frankly in hindsight she had every reason to spy on them and treat them as they have done since their opponents
    Whether she did who knows but she didnt do it enough obviously
    In reality since douglas showed how to be a traitor in office we really have lost our sense of morality But Helen is a saint compared with Key and Shipley and Bolger

  7. Philj 7

    Helen repeated Geoffrey Palmers line about the Roger Douglas changes being OK, but too fast and insufficient safety nets. I now realise she was compliant with neo liberalism.

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