Helen Clark, Socialist Affairs traces the life of the Prime Minister of New Zealand

Isuue 3-4 / Volume 48,1999

Helen Clark was the first national leader from a Socialist International member party to greet the millennium. She watched the sunrise over the South Pacific from the summit of Mount Hikurangi outside the town of Gisborne in the South Island of New Zealand, the first major country to see the new century dawn. As she did so the Labour Party prime minister said her hopes were simple.

"Would it not be wonderful", she commented on the first day of the third millennium, "to live in a world where no child went hungry and homeless, where all communities experience peace and decent living standard and show tolerance toward others, where the environment truly is clean and green, and where affirmation occurs through cultural and creative expression?"

Such have been her goals throughout her political life. Helen Clark, the second woman in succession to lead New Zealand, was born at Hamilton in February 1950 and her working life started in academia. She spent most of the 1970s lecturing in politics at the University of Auckland before winning the race to become Member of Parliament for Mount Albert. In 1981 she took her place in Parliament House in Wellington, the capital. She chaired the foreign affairs and defence select committee of the legislature from 1984 until she won her first ministerial job with portfolio of conservation and housing in 1987 in the second government of Prime Minister David Lange. In 1989 she progressed to head the ministry of health and labour and was named deputy prime minister in 1989.

Labour lost power the following year and Helen Clark became deputy to the leader of the opposition Mike Moore, succeeding him as leader in December 1993. In 1996 her constituency changed to Owiraka. During her years in opposition and until Labour re-entry to government last year she was at work on the strategies shaped to put an end to the conservative government under the National Party.

Labour is the longest established political party in the country. It was formed in 1916 and swept to power in 1935 under the leadership of Michael Joseph Savage. He died in 1940 and was succeeded by Peter Fraser and Labour continued in government till 1949.

Labour's first woman leader and prime minister has no illusions about the problems that face a small and remote country in the years ahead which earns its living from the farm products it grows.

"We are finding it difficult", said Clark, "to sustain first world living standards for all our people with what amounts to a third world export profile. Transforming our economy on the basis of knowledge, skill and technology into one which delivers better standard and more employment is probably the greatest challenge our country faces in the twenty-first century".

Labour has promised to be active in foreign affairs with a particular bias towards green issues. "We will bring to New Zealand's foreign policy the conviction and commitment which has seen previous Labour governments play important roles in events such as the creation of the United Nations, the successful formulation of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, the prohibition of nuclear tests and the establishment of a nuclear-free New Zealand."

A particular priority will be the country's relations with the South Pacific. In the military sphere the commitment of New Zealand troops to service in newly liberated East Timor has caused the Party to emphasise the re-equipment of the army to allow it to make "rapid, credible, and effective contributions to multilateral operations".

"Two changes stand out for me above all others in New Zealand society", says the New Zealand prime minister as she assesses the progress New Zealand has made over the years.

"The first is in the role of women. In my lifetime women have come from holding almost no significant positions in our national life to holding many throughout government, the judiciary, the public and private sectors, the professions, the churches, and community organisations. The glass ceiling has been well and truly broken.

"The second is in the recognition and place of Maori. Truly a renaissance in Maoridom has occurred, with huge and positive implications for Maori and all other New Zealanders."