Helen Clark on women in politics and why optimism is always the best policy

Busier than ever, her causes as relevant, retirement is the furthest thing from Helen Clark’s mind.

By Emma Clifton
Don't get Helen Clark started on golf.
"What on earth would possess me to walk around a manufactured grass course when there are mountains to climb and things to do? I just don't get it. No golf, no bowling greens," she shakes her head. "You'll never see me putting my feet up to play golf. I always say I'm too young to play golf."
It is 9.30am on a Friday and Helen, 68, has been back in New Zealand for less than 12 hours when she arrives at the Mt Eden house where we're holding The Australian Women's Weekly photo shoot. While we were waiting outside for her, I asked her private secretary what colour Helen's car is, so we knew what to look out for. Her car is, of course, Labour red. As if it would be anything else.
Despite leaving her job at the United Nations early last year, Helen's schedule appears more packed than ever. There is, she says, "an overwhelming demand to speak here, there and everywhere."
It's during this conversation that Helen really gets into her feelings about golf, which is representative of the larger point that any kind of retirement is still a long, long way off. The causes she prioritises are gender equality and women's leadership, but she also speaks on climate change, health issues – including HIV and non-communicable diseases – and drug-reform laws.
Needless to say, she's busy. When trying to schedule a time for our photo shoot, her press secretary remarks that it's lucky Helen is one of those people that "doesn't seem to really need sleep". Helen laughs at this. She happens to love sleep; she's just had to become very good at nodding off on planes in order to get any.
After many years living in New York, she's now based back in New Zealand and travels overseas once a month. She recently returned from four days in the Solomon Islands, arriving back at around 1am. As soon as the photo shoot is over, she will race to her Mt Eden home, grab her bags, and catch a 2pm flight to Whanganui to speak at a function. Then there are plans in Oamaru, Tauranga and Auckland, all within the next week. Home is where the job is.
More than 40 years in civil service means even her 'off-duty' outfit is still very much a politician's choice; in an ink-blue suit, Helen looks just as ready to stroll onto a podium as she is to sit down with a flat white and an almond croissant for our interview. She is both warm and business-like, chatting to us as she has her make-up done, a process she clearly does not enjoy but endures very politely. What she really wants to do is talk.
We're here to cover the release of her book, a selection of speeches from her career. It's called Women Equality Power, which sounds less like a book title and more like a protest cry. That feels appropriate, considering where the world is now when it comes to all three topics. And clearly people agree – before it even hit shelves, the first print run was sold out. The book covers everything from Helen's maiden speech in 1982 through to a keynote address that she delivered in Manila earlier this year about breaking the glass ceiling.
The timing has been excellent. September marked the 125th anniversary of the women's suffrage movement in New Zealand. It has also been two years since Helen lost the UN secretary-general race to Portugal's António Guterres on October 6, 2016, just one day before audio was leaked in which Donald Trump bragged he could grab women "by the pussy" and get away with it.
It's fair to say 2016 was an interesting year for women in politics. The repercussions are still unfolding. Out of Trump's presidency came the women's marches, and a global wave of female rage that has, among other things, reignited the #metoo movement. And Helen is here for it.
"Seeing Hillary Clinton not become president of the United States was simply astounding," she says. "And as we open the papers and turn on the news every day, it becomes even more astounding that she could have been defeated. But she was, and someone who had totally inappropriate attitudes towards women was elected, and [voters] preferred that over the woman who had fought for women and children all her life. So I think that was a bit of a catalyst. The secretary-general contest was not as high-profile, but nonetheless, for women active in civil-society organisations, it was of course noticed, and I think it starts people thinking, 'What's going on here?'"
Helen's Book Women Equality Power is published by Allen & Unwin
It's interesting to note that on the day of our chat, the Australian leadership battle between Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Julie Bishop was still up in the air. Helen has a lot of respect for Julie and thinks she would do a good job as prime minister, but she's unsure if "the boys' club over there" would allow it to happen. Two days later, Julie resigned from the cabinet after it became clear, via leaked text messages, that said boys' club had banded together to vote against her.
It's little wonder why New Zealand is held up globally as such a paragon of gender equality. Not only are we a country that seems to breed women who want to run for office, we also have a voting public that is open to them being there in the first place.
"Heaven knows it's been slow going since 1893 but it's got momentum now," she says. "There's 38.7 per cent women in parliament. If the political parties really put their minds to it, you could achieve gender parity in New Zealand in the next two or three elections."
It wasn't always the way, Helen recalls. In the early '80s, when she was one of only a handful of female MPs, it was still unusual to be a woman in parliament. But now it's an important part of our national identity, she says.
"It's like 'Nuclear-free New Zealand'. It was hotly contested by the National Party. They didn't agree with it at all. But then they embraced it. And when [Don] Brash came along to try and dump it, there was an outcry: 'You can't touch that.' So often Kiwis might think, 'Oh, I don't like that much,' but then it can turn around to being a source of pride."
Helen greets Jacinda Ardern at the Labour Party campaign launch, 2017
Now, of course, it's even more a point of pride to have our prime minister be only the second woman ever to give birth while in office.
"Jacinda has had huge international media and she's a phenomenon. And the story about the baby is also very, very big news – and that's reinforced by Julie Anne Genter, who must be so strong to bike to hospital for the induction. I mean, wow! These Kiwi women are so strong."
Helen has been very public about her support for Jacinda, and has been in her corner a long time. According to Helen, Jacinda stood out right from the time she came into Young Labour as a high-school student.
"I didn't know her very well – because she's 30 years younger than I am – but she was clearly someone who was on the rise," Helen reflects. "She was brought in by the head of my private office, when I was prime minister, to work in the back office and put together background materials for prime minister questions, things like that. She was definitely recognised as a rising star from at least her early 20s."
The new leader of the Labour Party, outside the Beehive, with her husband Peter in December 1993.
Helen also believes it's important to acknowledge Jacinda's partner Clarke Gayford's contribution.
"He's a role model for the young Kiwi father and we should celebrate it. While parental leave is available to men and women equally, the proportion of men who take it is still quite small. And Clarke's saying, 'I'm going to be the co-parent here and do my bit.'"
Ever since Jacinda became prime minister, there have been multiple headlines pointing to Clarke as 'the first partner', attending the spouse events that come with international leadership.
There wasn't as much hoopla around Helen's husband of 37 years, Professor Peter Davis, but there's a clear difference, Helen says.
"Peter always stayed in the background, whereas Clarke is a media personality in his own right."
She knows how crucial having a supportive partner is when you're in the top job.
"Clarke is doing very well," Helen says.
Prime Minister elect Helen Clark celebrates on election night, 1999
In politics, there's a lot of talk of being on the right side of history. Helen has nearly always been on that side, often at the same time as she was making history. When you are a female prime minister, in a country where there has been only one before you, everything you do is political. What you wear is political. Your hair is political. Your marriage is political. When you are a female leader, not only do you have to do all the things a male leader does – including, you know, leading – but you have to constantly serve as a flawless representative for your gender.
Back in 1989, when Helen was the first woman to sit on a Labour front bench in government, she not only had to be a good politician for the sake of being a good politician, she had to be a great one because she was the test run for all the women who would follow in her footsteps. Thirty years later, Jacinda faces the same trial by fire as she becomes the second women in history to become a mother while in office. But critics aside, both women are hopeful figures in a sometimes very hopeless world.
Since the catastrophic news events of Brexit and Trump in 2016, there has been a lot of politics that appears to play to our worst instincts as a society. Xenophobia, gender bias, racism… you can take your pick of the fears that are preyed on.
"This authoritarian populism is quite a phenomenon," Helen says.
"Populists always offer simple solutions to complex problems, and if they're implemented, they would probably make things worse! Hence Trump on trade, the populism in the UK and in the US on immigrants. It is disturbing to see particular groups picked on and stigmatised."
She's happy but not surprised that we haven't really seen it latch onto New Zealand politics.
"I think we're more tolerant, as a country, of diversity."
With mum Margaret and dad George after receiving the Order of New Zealand honour, 2010
Helen has often said her most admired person is Nelson Mandela. And it's her choice of words when describing him that stands out.
"To walk out of jail – and very difficult jail conditions – after the best part of 30 years and not be bitter, to then create a new future for your country, that's the sign of greatness."
With such high stakes in such a public arena, you could imagine that bitterness is not uncommon in government.
"Some people do get bitter," Helen agrees. "They can't accept a defeat, or they feel life hasn't somehow gone well for them – and for many it hasn't. But I think it's always best to keep an optimistic outlook. Because pessimism doesn't get you anywhere."
Hand in hand with Helen's many successes have come disappointments. For example, losing the race to become UN secretary-general, which played out both on the public stage and in Gaylene Preston's documentary My Year with Helen.
But a pragmatic viewpoint has always been a strong suit of Helen's, as has an ability to play the long game.
"When I was a child, my grandmother had an embroidered saying on her wall: 'Give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change.' Well, I'm in the business of change. But sometimes it won't be done tomorrow. You just have to plug away and not worry about things."
She rarely looks back, keeping her mind on what's next instead.
"I just keep running, really. There's plenty to do and I'll just keep picking and choosing what suits me. I don't have to go out and achieve anything, I just do what I like doing. I've kind of gone to the top of the formal structure, so now I can just please myself."

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