Clark, Helen Elizabeth

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Helen Elizabeth Clark

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark (born 1950) came to power in 1999. Also that country's longest serving member of parliament (MP), the former college lecturer had been active in politics for many years. Among her notable causes were nuclear disarmament, public health, and promotion of the arts.

Party Person

Clark was born on February 26, 1950, in Hamilton, New Zealand, the eldest of four daughters. Her father was the latest in a long line of farmers, while her mother was an elementary school teacher. Clark attended Epsom Girls Grammar School, and then went to Auckland University. It was while she was a college student in 1971 that she first became involved in politics. "Well I very deliberately went into politics," Clark told "When I was a student, I got very involved in political issues. I joined the Labour (sic) Party so I could follow those interests through. It's been a very deliberate decision, you don't just drift in."

Clark received her M.A. in political studies from Auckland in 1974. While working on her Ph.D. in rural politics, she began teaching at the university as a junior lecturer (1973–1975). During that time, she also maintained her political interests as president of the Labor Youth Council and a member of the Auckland Labor Regional Council. After an unsuccessful bid for a parliamentary seat from Piako, Clark went abroad to further her education under a University Grants Committee post–graduate scholarship in 1976. That same year, she represented her party at the Socialist International Congress and the Socialist International Women's Congress (responsibilities she held again in 1978, 1983, and 1986). It was a pattern of keeping her hand in both the political arena and academia that would follow for the next few years.

In 1977, Clark returned to New Zealand and took a job lecturing in political studies at her alma mater. Also that year, she served as secretary of the Labor Women's Council. Continuing her rise through the party ranks, Clark became a party executive in 1978, a position she still held in 2004, except for a brief hiatus from 1988 to 1989. In 1981, she represented Labor in an Asia–Pacific Socialist Organization Conference in Sydney, Australia. More importantly, 1981 was also the year that Clark was able to abandon her duel pursuits and concentrate on politics alone.

"Mother of the House"

Clark was first elected as a member of parliament (MP), representing the Mt. Albert electorate, in 1981 (a seat she still held in 2004). The victory allowed her to give up her position at the university and concentrate on her increasingly important roles both in the Labor Party and New Zealand's government.

During Clark's first term as MP, she was a member of the Statutes Revision Committee. Her next term's (1984–1987) service included positions as chairperson of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Select Committee, chairperson of the ad hoc Disarmament and Arms Control Select Committee and of the former Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and member of the Government Administration Select Committee. She also convened the External Affairs and Security Committee. In 1985, Clark was a delegate to the world conference that marked the end of the United Nations Decade for Women. The following year, she was honored with the annual Peace Prize of the Danish Peace Foundation for her efforts toward international peace and disarmament.

As her career progressed, Clark had the opportunity to expand her breadth of knowledge and experience by serving in several key positions in New Zealand's cabinet. Among these were minister of conservation (August 1987 until January 1989), minister of housing (August 1987 until August 1989), and minister of labor and health (1989–1990). In the latter role, she was instrumental in the enactment of tobacco control legislation. 1989 also saw Clark make history as the first female New Zealander to become deputy prime minister. In that position, she chaired the Cabinet Social Equity Committee, and was a member of such important groups as the Cabinet's Policy Committee, Economic Development and Employment Committee, and Domestic and External Security Committee. In 1990, Clark made history again as New Zealand's first woman member of the Privy Council. Meanwhile, the political climate was changing.

The Labor Party lost the 1990 election and Clark became deputy leader of the opposition. In that capacity, she was her party's spokesperson for health and labor and a member of the Social Services Select Committee and the Labor Select Committee. In December of 1993, Clark took over as leader of the opposition. She held that post until 1999, when the Labor Party's fortunes changed again. By that time, Clark's distinguished service as the longest running female MP in parliament had earned her the moniker "Mother of the House."

Prime Minister

In 1996, New Zealand introduced a proportional electoral system, known as the MMP, in which voters each cast two ballots - one for a political party and one for a local MP. Any party that receives more than 5% of the vote is entitled to parliamentary representation, whether any of its candidates win a seat or not. The result of the system often was a coalition of political parties in control of Parliament and ensured proportional representation of the people. Thus, when the Labor Party returned to power in 1999, it was in partnership with the Alliance Party, itself a coalition of five small leftist parties. Clark was elected prime minister on November 27, 1999.

New Zealand's new prime minister was known for her strong personality and outspoken views. An ardent champion of the arts, devoted pacifist, keen environmentalist, and avid outdoorswoman, Clark's popularity had been increasing since the mid–1990s. Her new coalition government was committed to such liberal policies as the reduction of inequality (with a special emphasis on the inequities dealt New Zealand's native Maori population), a sustainable environment, and improvement in the greater social and economic welfare of the people. More specifically, Clark described her personal leadership style to Time International as, "Direct, open, blunt, a lot of contact with media. You get accused of being the Minister of Everything, but I think most journalists would admit that the reason I offer opinions on things is because they ring and ask, and I do have the fundamental belief that the buck stops at the top and that people are entitled to know what the (p)rime (m)inister thinks."

Upon Clark's election, she also became minister for arts, culture, and heritage, along with minister in charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. The former was in keeping with her longstanding support of the arts. ". . . I think that through the arts and culture you express the soul and heart of your nation," Clark told ". . . . We have wonderful painters, wonderful ceramicists. We have very high standards in the performing arts. We have a lot of new creative material across theater and music coming through. It's a very vibrant and lively art scene. And it has responded to the official encouragement—which has come with some more funding—extremely well." Clark's administration allocated $142 million (NZ dollars) to the arts over a four year period.

Other important policies of the Clark administration included the Employment Relations Act 2000 (to bolster "good faith" employment), an extensive biodiversity conservation strategy, financial support for Maori land claims (along with a revitalized recognition of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and the British), and the 2001 Disability Strategy and Positive Aging Strategy. One of the most noteworthy foreign policy moves was Clark's February 2002 visit to Washington, D.C. in support of U.S. President George W. Bush's "War on Terror." The Labor Party had stopped bilateral military ties with the United States in 1986, reflecting New Zealand's anti–nuclear policy, and Clark's 2002 trip was the first meeting between a Labor official and U.S. president since that time.

Clark's prime ministry was not without its critics, of course. Among her unpopular decisions were the raising of taxes for the wealthy, liberal immigration policies, and worker–friendly legislation (such as the above–mentioned Employment Relations Act 2000). Nonetheless, assisted by a particularly poor performance by the conservative National Party and the upswing in strength of smaller parties—part of what the electoral innovations of 1996 were designed to accomplish—Clark won another term as prime minister in July of 2002.

New Zealand in the Future

Much of what Clark saw as her mission as prime minister was to ensure the financial future of her small country in a global economy. She recognized the problems posed by emigration of New Zealand's citizens and the inherent difficulties of being tiny. She told Time International, "Our biggest companies don't rate on a radar screen internationally, so you have to create an interest in New Zealand that wouldn't be there on the basis of its size and importance. That's why I think publicity and promotions—you do it around an event like the America's Cup. That's so important, because people who would never have any other reason to come to New Zealand take an interest. You get people who have a lot of money to throw around with an interest which (sic) can be stimulatory. But a small country in a globalized economy has to work very hard to be noticed."

So work hard she did. One way Clark went about it was attracting both the film industry and tourism to New Zealand. A major boon was the phenomenal success of the New Zealand–made Lord of the Rings trilogy. The filming itself created 20,000 jobs in the country and injected millions into the economy. It also paved the way for other movies to be shot there, including The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. But even more significantly, it attracted tourists in record numbers. By 2004, international tourists had burgeoned to over 2 million people.

As to the emigration problem, Clark had a message for those people as well. ". . . The life–style is without parallel, and that in a globalized age of information technology, you can be entrepreneurial anywhere in the world and do well," she told Time International. "There's no reason you can't be a leading software writer, a leading product designer, from New Zealand—and many are—buy we've got (sic) to get that image across to ourselves, build that confidence in ourselves that these things can be done from New Zealand. By all mean, go out and try the world. It's exciting, it's interesting, but actually, there's a lot going for New Zealand, too."


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