Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

The Helen Clark appointment

March 27th, 2009


While Helen Clark’s appointment to a four year term as administrator of the United Nations Development Plan is a major personal achievement, let’s not lose our heads about this. Her predecessor, Kemal Dervis was the former finance minister of Turkey and is a household name only in his own household. Quick quiz – how many former chiefs of the UNDP can you name? William Draper, Mark Malloch Brown, Bradford Morse… the hits keep on coming. Arguably, the most illustrious former holder of the post was Paul Hoffman, one of the architects of the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s.

Development is a difficult task at the best of times, and as Victoria University’s Andrew Ladley pointed out on RNZ this morning, UNDP is a huge bureaucracy with ambitious goals, spread thinly over more than 100 countries. Ironically, some of those so called Millennium Development Goals – to halve poverty by 2015, partly by getting developed countries like New Zealand to donate .7% of their GNP in foreign aid – will put Clark on a collision course with the Key government.

Foreign Minister McCully for instance has explicitly ridiculed the very idea of using foreign aid to alleviate poverty, and likened the process to flying around in a helicopter and throwing money out the window. Presumably, this is not what he thinks Helen Clark’s new job will entail. In this year’s Budget, there will be little room to increase New Zealand’s foreign aid contribution, currently limping along at around .35% of GNP. However, given the way the New Zealand economy has contracted during the past twelve months, much the same amount of money – or less – could keep the ratio looking much the same, or even better.

The Key government – by re-directing our foreign aid into serving our own economic and diplomatic interests in the Pacific – is at odds with the UN, and the International Monetary Fund. In recent weeks both the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon and the IMF have called on developed countries to take action to alleviate the effects of the global recession on poor and vulnerable countries. Instead, New Zealand plans on using its foreign aid as corporate welfare – to subsidise Air New Zealand services in the Pacific, for instance.

In her new job, Clark will have more pressing priorities than New Zealand – but it means that she can hardly cite her home country as a shining beacon for others to emulate, and any applause from the Key government for her appointment has to ring hollow, given the direction in which aid policy is currently being steered. The upside is that having Clark in this top UN job is more likely to shine the local media spotlight on the decisions that New Zealand makes about foreign aid, and about our UN Convention commitments.

One of the factors that made Clark’s appointment possible has been the direction of foreign policy during her administration. There were other, excellent reasons for New Zealand not being involved in the war in Iraq – but Clark’s appointment to her new UN job would have been unthinkable if New Zealand had signed on as part of the so called ‘coalition of the willing.” It’s a fair bet that no Australians made the shortlist.

In that sense, Clark’s appointment neatly crystallises why it is important for New Zealand to play a neutral, ‘Scandinavian’ role in military and diplomatic affairs, rather than be an obedient and predictable member of the Washington-London-Canberra club. If, as the National Party was urging us to do, we had signed on whole heartedly with George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard in their post 9/11 adventures, New Zealand’s standing with the majority of the world’s nation’s would have been far lower, and Clark would have not stood a chance of being endorsed by the General Assembly. In essence, militant membership of the old colonial club does damage to our international standing.

The UNDP – and the Obama administration – both have a particular interest right now in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The UNDP will be a useful tool in the hearts and minds run-up to the Afghan elections in August. Again, the choices under the last government have uncannily played into Clark’s hands in assisting her application. To date, New Zealand’s main contribution in Afghanistan has been the PRT reconstruction work in Bamiyan province, one of the few success stories in the entire country since the defeat of the Taliban government.

Clark will have her work cut out exporting that success anywhere else in the country, or in the region. Few people though, as Ladley indicated, will be expecting miracles. As administrator of the UNDP, Clark sits atop an entrenched and complex bureaucratic machine that has ambitious goals and declining resources, in conditions where delivery on the ground will all too often be at the pleasure of some of the world’s least attractive and inefficient regimes.

Talking about unattractive regimes… the by-election in Mt Albert will be an interesting test of both the Key government’s popularity, and the Labour Party’s selection processes. While Labour’s majority of 10,351 is a stiff hurdle to overcome, a messy selection process is something Labour will need to avoid. List MP Phil Twyford has been tipped as the front-runner, and would be a solid choice.

As the Dom-Post’s Tracy Watkins has pointed out, Labour may need to treat Clark’s departure in tandem with Michael Cullen’s imminent exit, and ensure that a list solution doesn’t eventually return the likes of Judith Tizard to Parliament. A non-list solution in Mt Albert – the Dom-Post suggests lawyer Helen White – and the conservation of list names like Twyford or Damien O’Connor to block Tizard (and others adjacent to her on the list) might best serve everyone’s longer-term interests.

Among other things, Clark’s departure for New York only serves to underline the pigmy status of those who have succeeded her but then again… we have always preferred warm and likeable mediocrity to the pricklier, cooler forms of excellence. On a personal note, Clark was always a rewarding person to interview – you always felt you had a chance, if the questions were good enough. She lacked the insecurity that makes a lot of politicians run and hide from engagement. Even her bluffing rarely insulted the intelligence.

The downsides? Well, there was the innate, much-noted conservatism. Like Cullen, she had an aversion to empty radicalism and treated it as a sentimental indulgence. Clark didn’t have a lot of time for romantic failure, formerly a big part of the Labour tradition. She also displayed an almost papal calculation and ruthlessness, manifested in her being willing to jettison almost anyone for what she saw as the tactical necessity of the time. Unconditional loyalty was something she reserved for the very, very few.

The jury is probably still out on whether some form of emotional distance is a good or a bad thing in a national leader. You know the scene at the end of Godfather II – where Michael Corleone sits alone, having disposed of virtually everyone, for the sake of the enterprise ? There was quite a bit of Michael Corleone to Helen Clark, from the early humanity to the later creature of the machine, doing what was felt to be needed.

Running the country, at the end of the day, is not a popularity contest – it is in one obvious sense, but John Key has yet to learn the ways that leadership isn’t about being popular. Helen Clark sensed that from the outset, acted accordingly, and expected the country to get it, finally. Which it did for a while – until it got tired, and plumped for what looked like a softer option.

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    1. 11 Responses to “The Helen Clark appointment”

    2. By stuart munro on Mar 27, 2009 | Reply

      There is some kind of irony that Helen Clark has been appointed to a development position at the UN, because it was substantially her failure to develop New Zealand that eroded the insuperable majority she acquired from National’s 10 years of uninspired fiscal experimentation.
      We can expect the same policy I am sure, a firm resolve to reduce expectations in lieu of constructive action.
      We may hope that she makes a better impression on the world than she has made on her compatriots, but there is no reason to expect it.

    3. By Chris White on Mar 27, 2009 | Reply

      Good on ya Gordon! I wondered how you could turn this good news for Helen Clark into an partisan attack on Key and the Nats, and you didn’t disappoint!

    4. By Jane on Mar 29, 2009 | Reply

      Chris White,
      Gordon didn’t exactly go easy on HC either. Since the Nats didn’t hesitate to take some credit for her appointment, they’re fair game.

      Gordon’s right about HC’s appointment drawing attention to the smallness of her successors, in ideology and achievement. John Key, shiny and shallow, promised a world class New Zealand. Kiwis fell for the Parnell mansion and the Wall Street CV, forgetting that what we had, our PM, our quality of life, and our international status as a fair minded, democratic country, was world class by anyone’s standards. But no, Kiwis wanted to get rich. How’s that working out?

      Stuart Munro, HC was ousted not so much because of her failures but due to Kiwis’ mindless repetition of the mantra that succeeded in the USA: “change”. In their confusion they thought that voting for an idealogically outdated party such as the Nats would bring them something better. All the cries for more excellence in NZ ring so hollow now as we have to listen to the bleating of a fossil like Rodney Hide.
      Congrats to Helen. She deserves this appointment and to be away from the sneering of ungrateful NZers who lost sight of what they had.

    5. By stuart munro on Mar 29, 2009 | Reply

      Jane,
      No, although PR flacks did attempt to create an anti-Helen movement they substantially failed, it was her own acts and omissions that made her political dog food.
      A worthless prime minister, she shows every sign of being equally worthless on her UN sinecure.
      It says a lot about her priorities that she considers a minor UN role more important than the leadership of her own country.
      This of course is not to say that John Key is any great improvement, in fact he’s practically useless. But he doesn’t pretend to be any kind of bizarre post-modern moral authority the way Helen et al did. In a sustained economic crisis created by the failed idealogies Labour wished upon NZ in the late 80s, the Clark government stuck its head in the sand and, employing race and gender as social control mechanisms, let everything go to hell.
      Key doesn’t play such vicious and dysfunctional games, so that in spite of his numerous shortcomings he nevertheless represents a modest improvement. But if this is the best NZ has to offer, then mass migration to Australia is the only sensible course.

    6. By Jane on Mar 29, 2009 | Reply

      Race and social control mechanisms? This is a tired refrain.
      Are you referring to the “anti smacking” bill in response to which groups of New Zealanders, inhabitants of a country that has woefully high incidents of child abuse and drug/alcohol abuse, actually took to the streets to defend their right to smack their children? The Nats supported it and it will not be repealed even though it was widely touted as a symptom of the “nanny state”.
      Or are you referring to the so called “terror raids” on Maori communities? I doubt that you are.
      “It says a lot about her priorities that she considers a minor UN role more important than the leadership of her own country”.
      Oh, please. In case you didn’t get the memo, she was no longer leading New Zealand.
      HC has been devoted during her time in politics to all of New Zealand, not just the rich or those aspiring to be.The woman is genuine, supremely clever and quick witted, unlike her successor.
      I must say it’s a typical Kiwi attitude to dismiss this as a “minor role” at the UN.
      I’m a fan of Gordon’s, but come on, who can name the last 3 Secretary Generals of the UN?

    7. By Ronald Reagan Cowboy on Mar 29, 2009 | Reply

      Only a journalist could turn some bureaucratic appointment into a platform for benign political rhetoric, with all of the conclusions sorted out by the measure of Gordon’s foot.

    8. By stuart munro on Mar 29, 2009 | Reply

      No Jane,
      HC never gave a damn about NZ, and that is why she is out on her ear. Economic policy? What’s that? You see, HC was up there with Fukuyama in presupposing an end of history, at least in terms of economic policy difference between left and right wing parties.
      Now that the wheels have come off the global financial system, you still want to pretend she was sacked by right wing jealousy. HC is gone because on her watch, NZ quality of life continued to erode as fast or faster than during the kleptocratic National governments of the 90s.
      On top of this she made a plethora of disgraceful compromises, like appointing Winston Peters, and proved on many occasions to be a charmless and vindictive old trout.
      What the UN has done to deserve her I don’t know, but I am glad to see her back. The left she defined wasn’t worth the trouble.

    9. By Jane on Mar 30, 2009 | Reply

      “Now that the wheels have come off the global financial system, you still want to pretend she was sacked by right wing jealousy”
      Ha! You imply that it was all HC’s doing. She’s not that powerful, I’m afraid.

      I don’t believe she was sacked by right wing jealousy at all (although that always plays a part, just look at the trouble the failed Repubs are giving Obama) just an apathetic population who thought the slogan “change” sounded like a good idea.

      I don’t know in which country your armchair sits, (South Korea, perhaps?) but I can tell you that the standard of living here in NZ well surpasses many others, including the USA where I lived for 25 years, during the “growth” period which Kiwis think they should have sampled. NZers have real wealth under their feet, for example the health care system, the care of the elderly, the amazing roads and infrastructure for such a small population. I returned to NZ two years ago and was shocked at how much Kiwis complain and how ignorant they are of what real riches they actually have.

    10. By stuart munro on Mar 30, 2009 | Reply

      And there we have it
      “including the USA where I lived for 25 years”
      I lived in NZ during that time and watched HC and her repulsive ilk turn a much better country than it is today into something that is merely much better than America.
      NZ used to have a thing called the decent society. The indecent society that Clark et al substituted for it is a pitiful remnant.

    11. By stuart munro on Mar 30, 2009 | Reply

      Take an example of Labour’s infamous goverance: housing policy. In the eighties, roughly 85% of New Zealanders owned their own homes. The figure was one of the highest in the world, and one of the factors that gave NZ at that time such a very large middle class.
      What is the ownership % now? Testing 70%
      Why? Post-1987 economic policy.
      What is Labour’s policy to address the issue? Denial.
      This is what you might expect in a banana republic, not a first world country.

    12. By Len on Mar 30, 2009 | Reply

      Congratulations are due, but Helen is still showing her weaknesses. She’s shafting Phil Goff and Phil Twyford before she goes by manipulating the Mt Albert selection so she doesn’t have to confront her old friend Judith about standing down from the list.

      Goff looks indecisive with Clark even running his press team for him, and his leadership will be stuffed if Clark’s weak candidate divides the party and loses Mt Albert. He needs to take control of the situation and deal with the Tizard issue personally.

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