Bryce Edwards’ Political roundup: Helen Clark’s path to the top of the world

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UNDP administrator Helen Clark meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

In a move that surprised no one, ex-Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark confirmed last week that she will stand for the position of United Nations Secretary General. Clark has the backing of the New Zealand Government, which has pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars towards supporting her campaign. Her nomination has been met with growing nationalist fervour in the media, and a widespread consensus on Clark’s rightness for the job amongst politicians from both sides of the House. The public has been has been urged to get in behind “one of our own.”

Understanding the contest

Terence O’Brien, a former New Zealand ambassador to the UN, has a nice clear run down on the ins and outs of the selection process. The permanent members of the UN Security Council will be crucial, and O’Brien believes that despite some procedural changes, “The permanent five will as ever get the man or woman they want.” He warns that a complex and highly politicised contest means, despite her obvious suitability, Helen Clark’s path to the top at the UN is strewn with potholes.

Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, Francois Hollande and Ji Xinping are The five men Helen Clark must win over to secure top UN job according to Tracy Watkins. She reports “Clark is said to be the early favourite of Britain, France and the United States because of her focus on reining in costs at the United Nations Development Programme, which she heads. China will likely also view her candidacy warmly, given her long history with that country as prime minister. But Clark’s big challenge will be wooing Russia. Her candidacy is not expected to attract a veto. But if Russia throws its weight behind any of the Eastern European candidates, that would effectively decide the contest because it is seen as Eastern Europe’s ‘turn’ to head the UN.”

That’s why Patrick Gower says Aunty Helen must win ‘Cold War’: “Russia has already said it wants Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian head of UNESCO with a similar background to Ms Clark. So, will Russia use its veto to block Ms Clark? Or will the United States use its veto to block Ms Bokova?” Gower says Clark has much in her favour – including her gender (“The United Nations wants a woman”), New Zealand’s role on the Security Council, “a near-perfect CV”, and a Machiavellian streak. He says while it feels like her “destiny”, there’s no escaping she’s in the political battle of her life.

If it comes down to an “ugly, country versus country, diplomat versus diplomat, political dogfight behind the scenes”, then Duncan Garner’s money is on Clark. He describes her as “the most consummate, professional and ruthless politician I have met.” He gives his reasons Why Helen Clark should get the job

Stuff has a look at the current line-up in Who should take United Nations top spot? Here’s Helen Clark’s competition.

The six nominations from Eastern Europe indicate there is already a failure of consensus from this geographical bloc, argues Audrey Young. Unlike some critics Young believes “The contest is wide open because the process is wide open” – referring to the move by the General Assembly to ensure all member states will be involved, rather than just the Security Council – see: Clink of glasses seals union of team Clark.

For an interesting report on the implications of the revised selection process, see Edith Lederer’s Candidates for next UN chief to face nations for first time.

What are Clark’s chances?

Waikato University professor of law Alexander Gillespie says Clarks chances are good and “On paper, she is the foremost contender” – see Eric Frykberg’s Helen Clark ‘ticks all the boxes’ for UN’s top job. University of Otago International Relations professor Robert Patman says her gender may work in her favour, but crucially Clark is “simply the most experienced candidate available.”

The international media has reacted favourably to her candidacy – see Claire Trevett’s World’s media talks up Clark’s bid. And Isaac Davison reports that British bookmakers currently have Clark as joint favourite with the candidate widely thought to be her main rival – Irina Bokova – see: Helen Clark favoured by bookies to UN Secretary-General.

Impact on the UN

“Whoever gets the job will find it hard work, judging by history” points out Eric Frykberg in Helen Clark ‘ticks all the boxes’ for UN’s top job: “The body’s first Secretary General Trygvie Lie found it impossible to halt the Cold War. The third, U Thant, could do nothing about the Vietnam war.” Frykberg reports Robert Patman’s view that “there had long been problems with UN ineffectiveness, because it was only as strong as its member states wanted it to be… there has been a lack of political will to give the UN the clout it needs to become more effective. And that is one of the challenges that Helen Clark or any new Secretary General faces in an interdependent world.”

This is also a point made by a Southland Times editorial which says “The UN is so notoriously missing in action when decisive measures are needed because of the preference for narrower, national, interests over wider, global ones. Especially so when the monstrous powers of veto available to five of the nations permanently on its security council are used to trump the wishes of the majority. For the benefits of being able to block initiatives they most hate, those favoured nations seem content to live with the downside of often crippling inertia in other matters” – see: If the UN wants an ace dealmaker, Clark’s the choice. Does it, though? The paper wonders whether Clark’s reputation for being an “effective, pragmatic type” may be a threat.

95bFM’s Ximena Smith interviewed Michael Macaulay from Victoria University’s School of Government on the role the UN, the biggest challenges currently facing the organisation and his view on Clark’s candidacy – listen to Helen Clark’s UN Nomination.

Claire Trevett’s World’s media talks up Clark’s bid includes a short history of the role of UN Secretary General, and a roundup of what the job entails.

In a typically provocative Herald column, Mike Hosking describes the UN as a “dysfunctional”, “unwieldy”, “ineffective”, “spineless mess that has allowed the world is disintegrate before its very eyes.” He says Clark is no more going to transform the UN than anyone else, but the “United Nations isn’t going anywhere and it does need someone to run it – so why not Helen Clark?” Hosking argues “Anytime a country our size gets to be at the top table of anything we should take it” for the increased influence it affords us – see: Helen Clark can’t fix United Nations but she gives New Zealand an in.

Of course it would be great if Clark is successful in her bid and she is very well suited to the role, says Labour Party dissident Josie Pagani, but “there is something much more important at stake: A credible United Nations” – see her Blogpost on Helen Clark. Pagani says current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been lacklustre in the role and the UN has failed terribly at times, but it is a hugely important body that has achieved a great deal and she points to stand-out “tough” Secretaries General who made a difference. 

Leftwing stalwart Don Franks says that for most “ordinary mortals” the United Nations is as “far off as the halls of heaven” – an “important high place, said to affect us somehow for good, in ways we only vaguely understand.” The difference is, he writes, unlike heaven we can soberly evaluate the UN and he finds “This human made creation is a permanently uneasy association of the world’s top imperialist states” – see: The UN’s heavenly gates.

What does it mean for New Zealand?

“Warm fuzziness aside, it’s hard to see any real boon for New Zealand should Helen make it” reasons Toby Manhire: “Has Ban Ki-moon made the world think differently about South Korea? Can you even remember which west African state Kofi Annan comes from? (Clue: it’s Ghana)” – see: Helen Clark can unite (almost) all of us. However he concludes Clark’s candidacy will be a welcome antidote to the flag debate and gives us the “opportunity to come together in a warm, national embrace about something which is symbolically important but not a lot more. The campaign can be a kind of Fisherman’s Friend for the nation.”

Audrey Young believes Clark’s candidacy will be a unifying force in New Zealand, even if she is not successful. “There will be genuine pride in her bid. And there is no down side for John Key in using his own impressive international connections as her champion” – see: Clark UN candidacy will unify NZ

Rodney Hide agrees that it’s a good look for Key. For Andrew Little, though, Hide says the nomination causes problems on several fronts: “It’s impossible for Little to present Key as arrogant and incompetent when Clark calls on his help and he agrees… And while Key is helping Clark scale the Mt Everest of politics, Little is left aimlessly throwing rocks. It’s not a good look, not when Key and Clark are arm-in-arm winning the vote of the world. But what can Little do? He can promise better and he can throw rocks. There’s not much else for the Leader of the Opposition.” Hide says Little’s other problem is “Clark’s current profile also reminds us of what she achieved and the comparison is not flattering” – see: Powerless Little left on fringes.

Looking back at Helen Clark’s career

Clark has been careful to emphasise that she is not campaigning on the basis of her gender but “as the best person for the job.” However others are keen emphasise the importance of Clark’s achievements to women – see: Jackie Blue’s Clark and Trudeau great role models in pushing equality and Lizzie Marvelly’s None better to smash ceiling.

Daphna Whitmore says that Clark did little to improve the lives of most women during her time as Prime Minister and has republished a critical review of Clarks political career – see: Recalling the reign of Helen Clark. She says Clark was certainly a capable manager and leader, but to what end? Her failure to oppose Rogernomics, sacking elected health boards, closing hospitals “with the sort of gusto that would make any Act MP today proud”, handling of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 and signing New Zealand up to the invasion of Afghanistan are examples of her willingness to adapt her principles to the prevailing orthodoxy rather than someone who stands by her core values at any cost.

Claire Trevett also has a look back at the highs and the lows of Clark’s long political career in Ex-PM to take old lesson to big stage. She also surveys Clark’s former colleagues and political rivals about what kind of world leader Clark would make – see: Helen Clark – A league of her own.

Dale Owens also interviews some ex-colleagues and political opponents of Clark for TV3’s Story, and interestingly it is one of the few breaks with the pro-Clark consensus – watch: Helen Clark to be top dog at the UN? In this, Willie Jackson says the Helen Clark he knew was “a PM who would rather have spoken to Shrek the sheep than 20,000 Maori who were concerned about their foreshore and seabed rights.” Jim Anderton offers an enigmatic “I know what it’s like to be in a tough fight with her”, followed by a rueful chuckle. And Don Brash, apparently intending a compliment, says her cynicism and skills at manipulating power served her well as PM and will be just as effective at the UN. 

Finally, the award for “Most Creative Interpretation of Helping Someone’s Career” goes to Annette King and Phil Goff for their version of their failed coup against Clark. King “recalls the day vividly” when she and a group of five other Labour MPs, tried to oust Clark over her low poll ratings: “She stared us down and went on to become an exceptional leader of the Labour Party. Some of us take credit for that because we think the fact we did challenge her gave her the mettle to really put her stamp on the Labour Party and she did” – see Jo Moir’s Helen Clark’s ‘persistence’ to stay on as Labour leader set her course to the UN.

Similarly, Phil Goff also believes “that challenge directly led to her later success” reports Dan Satherley – see: Goff: Failed coup set Helen Clark on course for success: “We went to Helen — we were all friends of Helen actually, there was people like Michael Cullen, Annette King and myself – we went in, we said, ‘Helen, we don’t think you’re going to make it. We think you’re going to have to step aside… That was a catalyst for her to renew her determination and her commitment to go for the job that she really loved.”  

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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