7 Oct 2018

Helen Clark on women in politics and international affairs

From ST at the Auckland Museum

Former NZ prime minister and United Nations administrator Helen Clark has published a book of speeches – Women, Equality, Power. She talks with Noelle McCarthy about sexism, power and the changing role of women in domestic and international politics.

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Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The Beehive was very different back in 1981 when Helen Clark became a member of parliament.

At that time, only 8 out of 92 MPs were women.

“It was a gentlemen’s club, pure and simple. Those of you who know Parliament now will know that when you go in up the stairs from the main entrance, you would walk straight ahead into what is now the beautiful, refurbished Grand Hall."

“But when I arrived there at the end of 1981, it was the billiards room, with four billiards tables which took up almost all of it. When women members started arriving there was nowhere for them. And so it was decided that an alcove at one end of the billiards room would be curtained off with screens and the ‘ladies’ could sit there for their cups of tea. And it was amazing what you heard sitting behind the screens!”

Helen Clark and Noelle McCarthy

Helen Clark and Noelle McCarthy Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum

Noelle McCarthy recalls a story about Marilyn Waring being summoned to Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s office late at night, dressed in her tracksuit.

Being hauled before your boss seemed like such a lonely experience, McCarthy suggests.

“What was it like for you? Were there women mentors, support?”

“Heavens, no,” laughs Clark drily. “There was nothing like that.”

She says the anecdote about Waring reminds her, though, of the time when she was summoned to David Lange's office in 1986 when he was prime minister.

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The occasion was the publication of the book Head and Shoulders: Successful New Zealand Women Talk to Virginia Myers.

In the book, hours of interviews with Clark were condensed into a single chapter. The representation of her words by the print media - without the surrounding context - caused her some anxiety.

She recalls glancing at a newspaper headline on a flight to Wellington around the time:

"There was the front-page story saying 'MP says colleagues are sexist'. 

"I thought, that’s a brave person,” she laughs, “and then I realised it was me.”

Clark anticipated the response to naming four of her colleagues would be "a bit grim,” as she travelled down to a parliamentary select committee chaired by National MP John Banks.

To her surprise, Banks shook her hand vigorously and said: "I tell people I’ve always had a lot of time for you." 

"You find friends in unusual places at times like this" she comments.

Clark's Labour colleague Trevor de Cleene decided to get into the story, as well.

“He said ‘of course she was discriminated against, but so was I. I had so much to offer as a senior lawyer coming into Parliament.’"

"The result was that we were both summoned to David Lange’s office for the disrepute that we were bringing the Government and the Labour Party into.”

The story had a surprise ending, though.

When they arrived "Trevor dressed David down, saying, 'I was in the law when you were still in short pants,’ and various other things. So I was asked to leave while they sorted out their differences because the things they were saying couldn’t be said in front of a lady."

Five of the six female MPs in the 1981 Labour caucus: Margaret Shields, Mary Batchelor, Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan, Fran Wilde and Ann Hercus. The sixth Labour woman MP in this period was Helen Clark.

Five of the six female MPs in the 1981 Labour caucus: Margaret Shields, Mary Batchelor, Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan, Fran Wilde and Ann Hercus. The sixth Labour woman MP in this period was Helen Clark. Photo: Te Ara

Despite being an elected MP, for Clark, the top political job that a woman could imagine filling was Minister of the Crown - a role very few women had filled before 1984.

There was Mabel Howard in 1947, Dame Hilda Ross in one of the Hamilton electorates in the 1960s, and Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan in the third Labour government.

“It wasn’t until Ann Hercus and Margaret Shields became ministers that we got up to filling five fingers on a hand of women ministers. So it did seem a very long way away. The rest is history.”

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Photo: supplied

The 'gentlemen’s club' that was the New Zealand Parliament has changed a bit since the 1980s. 

For more than half of the last twenty years, New Zealand has been governed by a female prime minister.

For eight years, until 2017, Helen Clark was the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

The UN is quite a different organisation in which to be a woman, she says.

At the global level, only 7.2% of global heads of state are female – “and that includes queens."

Fewer than five percent of the world's prime ministers and presidents are women – barely one in twenty.

That ratio has an effect on what happens at the United Nations, Clark says.

“Most countries have never experienced women in leadership at the top level so it’s not surprising that there are still glass ceilings to be gone through at the UN. I am optimistic that the next time as Secretary-General is elected, it will be a woman because I think that, ten times round, not to have a woman Secretary-General would be an indictment on an organisation.”

The President of the United Nations General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, having a word with Helen Clark during questioning.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Why does Clark believe it is so important that UN appoint a female Secretary-General?

“Even if [she] achieved absolutely nothing the role modelling would be that a woman could get to the top. A lot of the men don’t achieve much either, by the way. The truth is that in many countries, they are more likely to notice that the UN has a woman Secretary-General than they are to notice that New Zealand or Iceland have a woman prime minister. For the aspirations of women and girls globally, it’s very important.”

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About the participants

Noelle McCarthy

Noelle McCarthy

Noelle McCarthy Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum

Noelle McCarthy is a writer and a broadcaster with over 15 years of experience in radio - mainly at RNZ National where she has worked as a presenter and producer.

Her production company, Bird of Paradise makes serials and podcasts, including the immigration series Slice of Heaven and Ours: Treasures from Te Papa

McCarthy's podcast series on feminism, Venus Envy, is made in association with the Auckland Museum exhibition Are We There Yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa

She is also a film critic at Metro magazine and contributes to a range of media outlets, including The Spinoff and Sunday magazine.

Helen Clark

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Photo: supplied

Throughout her tenure as prime minister, and as a member of parliament for over 27 years, Helen Clark engaged widely in policy development and advocacy across the international, economic, social, environmental, and cultural spheres.

She advocated strongly for New Zealand's comprehensive program on sustainability and for tackling the problems of climate change.

She was also an active leader in foreign relations, engaging in a wide range of international issues.

In April 2009, Helen Clark became Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. She was the first woman to lead the organisation and served two terms there.

At the same time, she was Chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of all UN funds, programs, agencies, and departments working on development issues. As Administrator, she led UNDP to be ranked the most transparent global development organisation. She completed her tenure in 2017.

Helen Clark came to the role of Prime Minister after an extensive parliamentary and ministerial career.

Prior to entering the New Zealand Parliament, she had taught in the Political Studies Department of the University of Auckland, from which she earlier graduated with her BA and MA (Hons) degrees.

In her international role, Clark continues to advocate for sustainable development, climate action, gender equality and women's leadership, and action on non-communicable diseases and HIV.

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This programme was recorded in partnership with Auckland Museum