Helen Watson White
Women Equality Power: Selected speeches from a life of leadership by Helen Clark (Allen & Unwin, 2018), 430 pp., $45
On the eve of Labour’s candidate selection meeting in April 1980, Helen Clark was preparing to present herself, in competition with six men, as a possible successor to Warren Freer in Mount Albert. Some 20 years on, in Brian Edwards’ book Helen: Portrait of a prime minister (Exisle, 2001), Mike Williams describes her practising her speech in the kitchen that night: ‘There’s a phrase in that speech that sticks in my mind, which was, “I don’t think you should select me because I’m a woman. However, I don’t think you should not select me because I’m a woman.” It was a very, very good speech.’
Part of a ‘good’ speech is its motivation and preparation, shared in that instance with supporters Mike Williams, Judith Tizard, and Clark’s partner Peter Davis; but a more important part is the theatre of the occasion on which it is made. Without that element, that spark of vitality, speeches in print may lack any interest for readers in what has been called an oral/aural era. I remember, for instance, volumes of the speeches of Lord Cobham languishing on bookstore remainder tables years after he left the office of governor-general. How will Clark’s words fare?
To state the obvious, Helen Clark is not Lord Cobham. (While popular in New Zealand, where he sold 50,000 copies of his speeches, British-born Cobham went home in 1962 and – apart from serving a short term as treasurer of the MCC – simply retired.) As New Zealand’s first elected female prime minister, Clark blazed a fiery trail for other women to follow – as Jacinda Ardern has indeed done, in the same electorate. But she also demonstrated that she had a life beyond her elected role.
The word ‘retired’ doesn’t suit Clark. Denis Welch, in his 2009 biography Helen Clark: A political life, said she ‘took the nation’s breath away’ by resigning from the Labour leadership in 2008 at the same time as she conceded National’s win: ‘Clark went down fighting, just as she’d come up. The nation liked that.’ The following January the Herald ran a poll on who should succeed the late Sir Edmund Hillary as the ‘greatest living New Zealander’: ‘To its own surprise … Clark topped the poll. There’s an affection there, don’t doubt it; posterity will, I think, be kind to her.’
While there have been several books with Clark as subject, the latest, besides being (presumably) in her own words, differs in that it includes the near-decade after she made her valedictory speech to parliament in 2009. On 19 April 2009, 11 days after farewelling the House, she began work as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the first woman in that role. The valedictory comes a little over halfway through the book, or exactly halfway if you discount the pages of a foreword by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and an introduction by Jennifer Curtin, director of Auckland University’s Public Policy Institute. Not only was there life after electoral defeat; in 2009, perhaps Clark’s best work was yet to come. What, actually, was her best work?
The book’s title says it all: Women Equality Power. Clark entered parliament in 1981 believing women have the right to work, to experience equality in employment and to seek election to positions of power. For many women, their feminism had by then become an assumption that did not need to be declared. But at the time, the clarity and forcefulness of Clark’s expression of what drove her was still a new thing.
There it is, in the first of 65 selected speeches – Clark’s Maiden Speech to Parliament, 27 April 1982: ‘Our party was founded on concepts of social justice and equality … by working men and women who could see from the experience of their daily lives the injustice of prevailing social conditions.’ The phrase ‘working men’, used for decades by Labour and socialist leaders, is expanded to ‘working men and women’; those colloquially known as ‘the weaker sex’ were now co-agents of change.
At least as important as its underlying feminist message is the context of Clark’s Maiden Speech: in 1981 the country (and Clark’s family) had been split apart over the All Blacks playing rugby against the touring Springboks, who represented only the white minority of Apartheid South Africa. Cynically, it was observed that, despite nationwide protest, Prime Minister Muldoon let the tour proceed because it would mean a win for the National Party in the coming election – which proved true. Politics became very fraught at that time. But there is a surprising deficiency in the book’s presentation of what that time was like.
Many students of history, political or gender studies, some of whom were not yet born in 1982, will use this volume; I wonder how they, or readers outside New Zealand, will understand the brief introduction to that first speech:
Helen Clark first entered local politics in 1974, and was elected to parliament in 1981 as the representative for the Auckland electorate of Mt Albert, a position she held until her resignation in 2009. The prime minister at the time was Robert Muldoon, leader of the National Party.
It’s unclear here whether Muldoon was prime minister in 1974, 1981 or 2009 – or all three. Failing to tie Muldoon to National’s 1981 election success is almost as misleading as omitting, between speeches from 1983 and 1985, mention of the 1984 snap election which changed the political landscape again. As a global readership for this book might plausibly be expected, it is strange that the reader is given no indication of subsequent election dates or outcomes, which would indicate when Clark is speaking from the government benches or in opposition. Fortunately, here as well as later, Clark herself does offer, within the speeches themselves, some essential history, as well as background from her ‘perspective as a woman, as a member of a farming [i.e. National, rugby-loving] family, as one who was fortunate to have educational opportunities …’ (Parliament, 1982)
Clark’s Maiden Speech canvasses all her interests, from the changing demographic in Mt Albert, rising prices for postage and prescriptions and the current ‘housing crisis’, to what makes a ‘strong economy’, the risk of investing in National’s think-big projects, money-laundering by multinationals, what ‘restructuring’ means, and how to promote growth in the regions. Internationally, it questions the wisdom of a closer economic relationship with Australia and other free-trade agreements; the ‘prospects of disarmament’ in the face of Cold War escalation (NATO’s ‘new-generation nuclear missiles, the Pershing IIs, and the cruise’ versus the Soviets’ growing stock of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles); the territorial ambitions of the American Secretary of Defence; and the consequences of seeking ‘security’ by acquiring military hardware.
The whole book represents a playing-out of these issues in subsequent decades. Once Clark was in parliament, when some of the policy research must have been done by others, one still senses Clark’s complete control over her agenda and her argument, as well as over the style of expression, which sits comfortably between a good journalistic treatment and a very good university lecture. She provides a thorough background to most issues within each speech. In ‘Comments on the Waitangi Day 1995 Protests’, for instance, she says, ‘I went back to reports of what had happened on Waitangi Day in previous years … as far as 1978.’ She compares ‘the history’ up to 1984 with more recent ceremonies, charting what progress had been made in addressing Māori grievances that might have affected the political temperature at Waitangi. She knows she has to support everything she says with evidence, which is recorded in Hansard.
There is a surprising amount of humour (surprising only because popular voices have said that humour is something feminists don’t do). There is also anger at our leaders’ and our allies’ ‘flight from reality’ on the issue of nuclear deterrence and nuclear testing in the Pacific: ‘The irony is that the more that has been spent on nuclear weapons the more insecure we have all felt.’ Furthermore, Clark says, ‘While the major economies of the world bankrupt themselves to pay for increased defence budgets, the considerations of sharing out the world’s resources more equitably, widening trade possibilities and raising living standards take a back seat.’
With a strongly international perspective already established before and during the time she was engaged in domestic politics (1974–2009), it is no surprise that in the second half of the book Clark becomes preoccupied with global issues. The title, Women Equality Power, now denotes a much larger project that is ongoing. For instance, in a 2015 speech in Argentina on ‘Women and Social Inclusion’, Clark describes the origin of women’s ‘time poverty’: ‘in rich and poor countries alike, women carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work, which deprives them of the time needed for jobs and livelihoods, education and skills training and participating in public life’. The invisibility of female labour in UN and NZ statistics relating to ‘productivity’ was trenchantly criticised in the 1988 book Counting for Nothing, by fellow-MP Marilyn Waring; as I was writing this review, the Labour-led coalition government announced an intention that the state should begin to pay those who care for family members in their own homes.
This is just one among many, many issues in the speeches that are of social, economic and ethical significance to the wider world. As Clark, newly heading the UN Development Programme in 2010, outlines the Millennium Development Goals in a blog-post, you can be certain of the values that have driven her thus far: ‘These eight time-bound goals aim at tackling poverty in its many dimensions. There are goals and targets on income poverty, hunger, access to education, maternal and child health, deadly diseases, inadequate shelter, gender equality, environmental degradation …’ When the MDGs were replaced in 2015 by seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, she said, ‘women’s empowerment will be crucial to achieving this new agenda’, and gave evidence from past successes for why this will be so.
From New York to Kazakhstan, Oslo, Tokyo, Cardiff, San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Oxford and Canterbury (Kent), from a TED talk in Auckland and a Commonwealth education conference in Fiji, to a Climate Change Conference in Morocco and a forum in Australia, Clark describes her vision of ‘The Leadership We Need’ (Canberra, 2017), considering the huge challenges to sustainability that the more realistic of our prophets can foresee.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer, critic and photographer.