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Helen Clark talks to RNZ's Guyon Espiner about her nine years as PM as her govt moved to draw a line under Rogernomics, unleash new social reforms and rethink NZ's place in the world

Helen Clark talks to RNZ's Guyon Espiner about her nine years as PM as her govt moved to draw a line under Rogernomics, unleash new social reforms and rethink NZ's place in the world

In part five of The 9th Floor, RNZ's 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.

By Guyon Espiner*

When you think of someone who might embrace an offer of job sharing, Helen Clark doesn't immediately spring to mind.

But the idea of Winston Peters sharing the Prime Ministership over a term of government was “floated” with Labour in the failed attempts at deal-making after the 1996 election, Clark says in the final episode of The 9th Floor.

Clark says she can’t recall who raised it, as during the coalition talks Peters often had others communicate for New Zealand First through “back routes”.

She says she doesn’t know how serious the proposition was and ultimately it was not the stumbling block which saw Peters reject Labour and form the first MMP government with National.

“It might have been loosely floated but that wasn’t the sticking point. I think Finance Minister was the sticking point,” she says. Regardless, the idea of sharing the top job wasn't one she could entertain. “No. You can only have one Prime Minister.”

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.”

Helen 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 in 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.”

Her actions in calling a snap election in 2002 are a vivid example of how she wielded power. So how does it actually work? Can you just call a snap election? Not according to our last Prime Minister John Key. "The reality is … to have an early election you can't just say, it's a lovely day in March let's have an election," Key told RNZ last September. He went on say that in order to hold a snap election the government would have to either lose a confidence vote or go to the Governor General and say it could no longer command a majority.

So I asked Clark what happened when she went to the Governor General to make the case for a dissolution of Parliament in 2002. Did the Governor General test you? Clark laughed at this, an 'are you kidding?' laugh. “They act on advice.” So despite what Key believed, you can pretty much call an election when you like? “Pretty much,” Clark replied.

And that was pretty much the style of Clark the Prime Minister. She was a huge force and her influence spanned a vast array of policy and almost none of it, she famously said, came from the tens of thousands of public servants.

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?

Many viewers might not realise how close this all came to not happening at all. Clark had to stare down a challenge from her own MPs in 1996 when her poll ranking plunged to just two percent. She told us she comes from "stubborn Yorkshire stock".

"If you want to take me on, take me on, but don't try to intimidate me out because I won't be intimidated out".

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.

*This is part five of RNZ's The 9th Floor series and first appeared here. It is used with permission. We'll be running parts one to four featuring interviews with Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley over the next few weeks.

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while i like some of the early things they did i thought WFF was a huge mistake and will cost us in the long run,
why not just change the lower end tax bands achieves better results and cheaper to implement.
i also think student loans and making them interest free are another huge mistake, all it has done is make studying more expensive, and saddled generations with huge debt to start their working life with.
and last was buying back kiwirail, that was a stupid decision. We already owned the tracks we did not need the company, we could have open the whole sector up to competition,

Agree on all points. Kiwirail should possibly never have been sold in the first place though.

Re education, we should be looking to make it cheaper and universities less about being a business, rather than turning them into profit-driven businesses then extending loans to young Kiwis to increase the amount they can "afford" to pay to universities.

Heaven forbid we go down the ridiculous road the USA has re education and debt.

Agree 100% on WFF.
But student loans, I'm not sure about that. Interest free is a good incentive to stay in New Zealand, and contribute the benefits of education back to New Zealand. Honestly interest on loans will just make the smartest New Zealanders leave, it is much easier to pay back that loan with USD or EUROs. Remember that because of our geographical isolation, we really need to have a high skill work force producing high-value products.

Also in my opinion most students aren't at all concerned about their loan until they start working, and see the money coming out of their paycheck, and realise how reamed they are. So most students aren't that price sensitive. I know gen Xers still paying back there loans due to interest accumulated in the 90s

As for the cost of education, the incentives are all wrong. And I have seen a recent example where an instituition trained a much larger number of nurses than available positions. Maybe the incentives should be around students outcomes after study. I believe that work towards this are already underway.

maybe the problem is we have turned education from government funded institutions to fill the needs of the nation into an industry.
i listen to mark bouris yesterday on a podcast slamming the aussie government for the same student loan scam, making students taking on debt to study with no guarantee of a good position at the end of it to even attempt to pay back the debt.
the whole student loan saga started as a way of poorer people attending university but what has happened as a result (of this subsidy) is education courses prices have shot up, we have people studying for useless degrees, many dropping out with a big debt,
and worst those that would have gone into trades or other professional vocations heading off to university because that's what you do

and this is the results

I agree that the 'tertiary sector' is run increasing as a near-term profit maker. With increasing terrible results.
But disagree that interest free student loans have much to do with the cost of education in this context.

If you have the time :

Note that the popularity and profitablity of nz universities for international students is decreasing, and that lower level study volume for international students is massively increasing. Need I say more....

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?

NZ deployed a frigate to support the invasion and then sent troops to occupy Iraq.

Not sure at all about her and her government. In my opinion she as PM was academically conceited & her deputy academically cynical. Too often each of them appeared to consider issues raised by the press or whoever as being below, far below in fact, their level of cerebral superiority. That translated eventually into proposed policies, eg light bulbs & hot water, that the electorate could not fail to interprete as being interference in their personal ability to run their own lives. The a la iron curtain high speed motorcade added much to that sort of perception. There was a long time ago a good cartoon in the Listener depicting a well wined Ruth Richardson captioned with her saying "the peasants in my country don't know how lucky they are." Oddly enough I think Labour, or at least the top of Labour, came to look exactly like that. It seemed that this PM had some sort of innate regret that she had been born in a such a small country whereas she had the ability to be astride the world stage. To be fair she almost made it there as far as the UN.

Just a comment on light bulbs, or the proposal to phase out incandescent bulbs to be more exact, was initially a Green Party proposal - which was taken up and implemented by the Clark Government and then reversed by National;

Meanwhile, whilst we go backwards on an enlightened (pun intended) decision - the rest of the world moves forward with greater regard for energy conservation;

Some jurisdictions, such as the European Union, China, Canada and United States, are in the process of phasing out the use of incandescent light bulbs while others, including Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, have prohibited them already.

Perhaps someday we'll get there - again!

Incandescent bulbs phased themselves out through being useless low-quality crap that took about three days to burn out. LEDs took over because of the arse-ache factor. Remember a couple of years ago when electricians said 'please stop calling us out because lightbulbs keep blowing out, it isn't faulty wiring, it's garbage bulbs that don't last'. That's when I switched out, and haven't been balanced on a chair unscrewing bulbs since.

Exactly - it was sunset technology when the Nats canned the ban. Makes you laugh, Nats were elected on 8 November - and dear 'ol Gerry had reversed the ban by the 28 November. It was obviously a TOP priority!!!!!! A bit representative of their overall intellect.

Nobody sane has particularly strong feelings about lightbulbs, so it must have been picked out as a particular subject for propaganda, for people to still be bitching about such a complete trivial non-event ten years later.

Yes, they no doubt polled on it at the time and determined there was populist mileage out of a reversal. And yes, how folks still recall it 10 years on - just goes to show how effective their polling was :-). Whether it was the way to run the country is another matter.

If you wanted to see a sign of corruption responding to crony capitalism that's it

If action is taken purely on "political" grounds it would be reversed late in the electoral cycle toward the end of the first term in power

When the reversal is implemented immediately on attaining power that is the power of the "influencer" - settling the debt


Pretty much agree with you. I didn't like her or Cullen as they were both arrogant and, I believe, openly and blatantly lied to the country on several occasions.

Never the less you have to admire the power that she managed to wield. As a power broker she was one of the best - as to the benefits of it, well that's another question.

Brilliant series though Guyon. Well worth the effort.

I do believe we have had several "Sub-Prime Ministers" Otherwise we would have enough houses to go round.

Plus we would not be gridlocked in Awkland. And everyone thinking this was a "Capital Idea"

Plus we would not be stuck with them ruining our chances of voting them out, when "Think Big" fails time and time again.

Plus, If people are living in cars, when we subsidise rental accommodation to the tune of 2 billion dollars and counting, something does not add up in my opinion.

Maybe it is time to take a rise out of these people we hold so Dear.

Our "Dear Leaders" have not been economical with the truth, Sub Prime is all around us.

Plus they seem to have benefited more than most, even a free trip abroad, when the going gets rough, when all is said...but not done.!??.

at least she can say she left some legacy policy behind WFF and interest free student loans, (which i dont like)
unlike the last PM who has no legacy policies, maybe if spent spent more enrgy on something more worthwhile than the flag he would have something people remember him for in generations to come

And KiwiBank (in response to bank fees getting out of control).

And KiwiSaver, to increase the chance New Zealand citizens can live in dignity in their old age.

And the Cullen Fund to invest for New Zealand's future.

those three I agree are good policy for future NZ
but they were not HC
kiwibank was jim anderton
the other two were Michael Cullen
most MPs that make it to the top two jobs try to leave a big legacy
those further down will try to get a law past,
they may go into parliament with good intentions but egos and personality soon take over.

And don't forget these two were part of the Lange cabinet that introduced GST (which wasn't on the manifesto) with an appropriate relative reduction in personal tax etc & then once back in government promptly raised the tax again. At that point I decided I was unlikely to ever vote Labour again. Believe Peter Dunne thought likewise. Trouble with Labour is that they appear to exist on a platform of increasing taxation by any means at every opportunity as the only solution they can think up.

Of course they used that tax to pay down masses of government debt and contributed to the Cullen fund. I'd like to know how well nz would have survived the GFC had they borrowed for tax cuts like National have.


JK will be remembered for generations to come. As the neoliberal who presided over the greatest reduction in quality of life during his tenure compared to any other PM in New Zealand's history . Helen Clark by contrast strikes me as an intelligent person who possesses a great deal of goodwill, and who used her qualities to make a change for the better (for all kiwis).

Any respect I had for Helen Clark evaporated when I learned she owns/owned 6 investment properties.

Student loans were a big mistake for many reasons, including it pushing up prices people have to pay for professional services. If they were to have them, far better for them to be slowly paid off if you to remain in NZ, and have an very high interest rate if going overseas for more than 3 years.

When i think Helen Clarke my first thought is about when she was held hostage on the tarmac in Oz during the Ansett fall out. I wasn't a fan of her and Cullen but found that pretty outrageous at the time.