One smart, tough Kiwi rooster

Helen Clark, consummate international performer, leaves big shoes for John Key to fill as he heads to Peru's APEC as her successor

A few months ago, Australian diplomat and Secretary-General of the Pacific Island Forum Greg Urwin passed away. His untimely death robbed the region of a very able administrator. He was hand-picked for the role by that tough little Aussie rooster, John Howard, and crow-barred into the position in the face of no small opposition from the Pacific states.

When tough roosters like Howard want someone to sort out an underperforming organisation, they tend not to favour wishy-washy consensus-builders. When they want a hard job done, they select roosters similarly tough.

Greg Urwin, one would then assume, would not be an automatic friend of a confirmed internationalist of left-wing leanings–the type who opposed the Vietnam War, lamented the passing of Salvador Allende, and led the charge for nuclear disarmament. Yet Urwin was firmly of the view that Helen Clark was one of the finest international statespersons that he had had the privilege to observe in his diplomatic career over many decades.

It was Helen Clark, he observed in a private conversation, who had the acumen and ability to hold together the fractious grouping of Pacific countries during its trying summits of recent years, when Howard was pitted against the Solomons, and when Fiji was desperately trying to drive a wedge between the island states and New Zealand and Australia.

The views of people like Urwin are backed up by many of the high-ranking New Zealand CEOs who, over the years, travelled in trade delegations with Clark overseas. Far from being Labour supporters, these CEOs could only watch and admire as Clark would deliver virtuoso performances, charming them, charming the hosts, and all the while demonstrating an acute grasp across many issues of international trade, finance and politics.

Her ability in this respect is probably unsurpassed. Of post World War II prime ministers, she was clearly superior to Holland, Nash, Holyoake, Marshall, Rowling, Muldoon, Palmer, Moore, and Shipley. Yes, Kirk and Bolger had good moments, and Lange was rhetorically gifted and quick. But none had her combination of intellect, capacity for graft, and deft touch. Fraser is the only one who might challenge her, but not surpass her.

For a small trading nation dependent on the goodwill of others for our livelihood, her defeat is a huge loss. When she went into office, New Zealand had a free trade agreement with one country–Australia. We now have arrangements with Singapore, Chile, Brunei, Thailand, and, most recently, China. We are involved in negotiations with Asean. Progress is being made with South Korea and Japan. And even the United States has finally bent to years of Clark's strong advocacy and opened serious discussions with New Zealand and our P3 partners. Many is the time that stumbling blocks thwarting progress were overcome by a sage Clark intervention with her opposite.

If Clark and Labour had not been in office in 2002-03, New Zealand would have joined that most idiotic odyssey–the Iraq War. At the funeral for the Queen Mother in April 2002, Tony Blair told Jean Chrétien of Canada, Howard and Clark that the US was intent on invasion and the UK would stand with its ally. Howard concurred. Clark demurred, strongly, as did Chretien.

Intense pressure ensued. I have little doubt that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was advising that New Zealand’s ‘interests’ would be imperiled if we did not join the US-Anglo-Oz adventure (I look forward to seeing those briefing notes emerge in a few decades time). Clark played her hand superbly. New Zealand took part in international conflicts with UN-backing and which had some shred of principle attached (Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf maritime patrols). But we politely avoided Bush’s appalling and tragically absurd waste of lives.

Clark’s time has now passed. While her domestic achievements are equally considerable, I have little doubt that if she had played her domestic opponents as she did her international ones (donning that velvet glove over the iron fist, as she did in the last TV debate) she would be enjoying an historic fourth term.

John Key graciously paid tribute to the service Clark gave to her country. As someone who served her, it was a genuine privilege to observe the admiration she earned for our small country wherever she visited. Her ability earned us much reflected respect. She made her mark in august settings through being very smart, incredibly industrious, and charming. And she was a tough rooster too.

David Lewis is former chief press secretary to Prime Minister Helen Clark