New Zealand

The Unflappable Helen Clark

Helen Clark and Koala, March 4, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clark, a Labor Party veteran, faces a general election this year with confidence, and well she might. Her recent meeting in Washington with U.S. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell won her even more support from centrist voters in this country of 3.5 million people.

Who in this strongly independent country, thousands of miles from anywhere, could forget the TV image of Colin Powell describing New Zealand and the United States as, "very, very, very good friends?"

As Colin James, a political commentator for New Zealand’s largest daily, The New Zealand Herald, wrote: "You can't manage, wheedle, spin or buy the PR for the home front that Prime Minister Clark won in Washington," on March 27.

It was Helen Clark who was the principle architect of New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy that precipitated a breach with the United States in the 1980s. Her strong protests played a crucial role in former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer's decision to refuse to accept a visit from the USS Buchanan in early 1985.

But, as it has become clichéd to say, the world has changed since Sept. 11. Clark took the initiative soon after that date to offer to send troops from New Zealand's Special Air Service to help the United States in Afghanistan. In Washington, she reportedly impressed her hosts with her detailed knowledge of and interest in foreign affairs---and with the concordance of her views and the U.S. administration's

Another reason for Clark's visit to the U.S. capital was to push for a free-trade agreement between New Zealand and the United States. But such an agreement looks distant---despite all of U.S.-New Zealand Council President Fred Benson's talk of riding "a rising tide of warmth" to an agreement between the two nations.

After her visit to the United States, the Prime Minister attended the funeral of the Queen Mother in London, then took a week off to host a Discovery Channel TV program on New Zealand's mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, beaches and forests.

But in an ironic twist, the forthright, unflappable Clark has faced criticism from the conservative opposition in Parliament for having signed a painting, not her own, sold three years ago at a charity auction. Under questioning from journalists, she went on to admit that she had signed six other fakes---all for one good cause or another. Opposition MPs say her actions throw her credibility into question.

Clark's misjudgment has attracted international attention, notably from the conservative London Times, TV channels in Australia, Britain, the United States, and Asia. Luckily for Clark, though, news of the kidnapping of a judge’s baby and World Cup rugby overshadowed the scandal at home.

Many in the conservative press swooped on the misdemeanor. Auckland’s The New Zealand Herald produced headlines such as "Paintergate Dents Clark's Armor," and "Clark's Deception Reveals Deep, Abiding Cynicism."

But in an unsigned April 19 editorial, Wellington's conservative Dominion took a more charitable view of Clark’s misstep. "While Clark's signature increased the amount a buyer was willing to pay, it was the Save Animals from Exploitation charity that benefited, and nobody seems to mind that," the editors wrote. Moreover, Clark stood to gain nothing personally, Dominion’s editorialist argued, and to lose a great deal when the truth came out.

But it seems the Labor leader has lost nothing. An April 20 poll conducted by Wellington’s TV One News and Colmar Brunton, a polling company, found her personal approval rating had climbed two percentage points to 49 percent. According to the poll, only 12 percent of New Zealanders favored Bill English, leader of the conservative National Party.

Despite serious gaps in the nation’s health and education services, English has failed to make an impact on New Zealand’s voters, and may, in fact, be losing ground. According to the TV One poll, 34 percent of respondents now favor the National Party, as opposed to 35 percent at last check. Support for Clark’s Labor Party, in contrast, rose by one percentage point, to 50 percent.

The poll results suggest that Labor, with 67 seats in Parliament, could comfortably govern alone, leaving the Greens with eight seats and National with 45. The Greens are in the Labor coalition at present.

Likewise, the poll found that overall approval of the government's performance is up five points, to 61 per cent. Analysts credit the effect of healthy returns on increased dairy exports and solid trade in timber, wool, wine, and foodstuffs for the rise in support for the Labor government.

New Zealand's dairy industry alone exports US$3.5 billion worth of dairy products a year, or roughly a quarter of New Zealand's total exports, effectively tying the health of the industry to the political future of this largely rural country.