BOOKCASE

Helen Clark: Political Life
• By Denis Welch • Penguin • RRP $40.00

In defence of her decision not to be interviewed by Denis Welch, author of this recently released unauthorised biography of her, New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark said: “I think it is much too early to do any sort of proper retrospective” of her term in office.
What is it about political leaders that has them comparing themselves with well-crafted vintage wine? Their performance in office, once vacated, does not improve with age.
So, Helen Clark: Political Life is bound to rest on the nation’s bookshelves without the blessing, or any other material contribution, from the subject herself. That fact alone, says something about the woman who led this nation for nine very settled, if sadly squandered, years.
What defines successful political leader, prime minister – in fact, any successful leader? Principle or practice? Welch, understandably, doesn’t offer an opinion on this particular point but, he is unquestionably more in awe of her practical leadership skills than he is of her display of any discernible political principles.
Given the constraints that go with his lack-of-access to verifiable inner-sanctum information, Welch does professional job of pulling together the main threads, theories and theatrics of Helen Clark’s life and career so far. They don’t, I’m afraid, meld to create particularly attractive portrait of the subject however.
In his words, “The 49-year-old woman who took office as Prime Minister of New Zealand on 10 December 1999 and held it till 18 November 2008 was liberal, conservative, pragmatist, progressive, left-winger, centrist, social wet, an economic dry, an Auckland University intellectual, Waikato farm girl, peacenik, friend of old soldiers, an internationalist, New Zealander.” In short, she could be whatever it was expedient to be at the time. Or, as Welch puts it: “Whether you’d voted for her or not, she was, in that moment the embodiment of the nation’s psyche.” Hmmm!
Welch suggests successful leadership is about “finding the right level of projection – level at which you feel comfortable about yourself and at the same time strike the public as credible, if not convincing”. That may be part of it, but hopefully successful leaders have more to offer than that.
Clark, who acknowledged her shortcomings in economic understanding, left her fiscally more adept deputy, Michael Cullen, to manage the nation’s purse strings. With Micawber-like dedication he worked to restore the nation’s balance sheet, and made fair fist of it. But between them, they failed to see the opportunity with which they had been presented. Consequently, high dollar and rampant property market combined to strip out any real benefits for the constituency Clark and her social democrat principles supposedly represented. The divide between rich and poor widened significantly during her reign.
Helen Clark was successful leader of an often times difficult to muster Labour Party pack. The book may not be to her liking but it contains some very interesting insights into effective leadership, as practised by her. Time won’t change that.

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