Originally published on Insight: Politics 17.04.20
There is little I agree with Jacinda Ardern on. Despite this, I somewhat sympathise with Jacinda for the situation she finds herself having to govern in; especially some of the personalities that don’t make the job any easier. Winston Peters can only be an absolute nightmare to work with in government.
The other personality that insists upon making herself frequently awkward ever since returning from working in the United Nations is Helen Clark.
Casting an eye over the former New Zealand Prime Ministers since 1984, they’ve been a mixed bag in terms of what they achieved before being voted out and the dignity they maintained afterwards. Robert Muldoon, in power and afterwards, is an excellent example of doing everything that could have been done wrong. He ruled as a virtual dictator, wielding the power of the executive in his two hands and personally regulated every aspect of everyone else’s lives convinced that he alone knew what was best for the country.
Upon losing the 1984 election, Muldoon stayed in Parliament seemingly to demonstrate why former Prime Ministers should recognise when it is time to go; once they have lost an election. It took action by National MPs immediately after the election to depose Muldoon as Leader of the National party, replacing him with Deputy Leader Jim McLay. Asked later whether he intended to be a thorn in the side of McLay, Muldoon stated “More like a little prick.” He refused to join McLay’s front bench as offered and openly criticised McLay’s leadership. Upon Muldoon’s openly criticising the entire leadership of the National party, McLay demoted him to the lowest rank of the National caucus. That step didn’t stop Muldoon from being openly critical of Jim McLay up until he, in turn, was deposed by Deputy Leader Jim Bolger and returned to the National front bench as Foreign Affairs spokesman. Muldoon remained the MP for Tamaki until resigning in 1991 due to poor health and dying the following year.
Prime Minister David Lange, having defeated Muldoon in 1984 would have seen all of this sad state himself and learned nothing from it. Lange’s government was reactive from the very start of its term, being completely unaware of the mess it was inheriting until the beginning and being forced onto the backfoot dealing with a foreign exchange crisis of Muldoon’s own making. The Labour party did not campaign on a platform of radical free-market reform but found itself unable to react in any other way, so dire was the state of the economy at the time. Despite surprising its support base with the scale and direction of reform over the next three years, Labour managed to be elected to a second term. Lange became increasingly uncomfortable with the actions of his own government and his own inability to control his cabinet, pulling the plug on Finance Minister Douglas’s flat tax program in 1988 in order to resume social reforms more familiar to the membership of a Labour party. However, Douglas was re-elected to Cabinet by the Labour caucus in 1989 and Lange resigned as Prime Minister five days later.
By his own admission, Lange’s time as Prime Minister was one of being overwhelmed by forces outside of his own control and an inability to exert his own leadership. It is surprising that he remained in politics following the catastrophe of the 1990 election in which National won 67 seats compared to Labour’s 29. He remained in Parliament until 1996, giving anyone who wanted to examine Lange’s failures as a leader the opportunity to do so. Indeed Lange himself spent the next six years doing just that until being forced by poor health to resign just before the 1996 election. In his valedictory speech he openly admitted those over 60 hated him because they had the right to expect an ‘endless treadmill of prosperity and assurance and we did them.’
Lange was succeeded as Prime Minister by Geoffrey Palmer for under 12 months in 1989. Palmer was closely associated with the Roger Douglas reforms by the Labour membership and seen as too academically aloof to appeal to voters. He was replaced by Mike Moore two months before the 1990 election and resigned from Parliament. Palmer was a stellar example of recognising when it is the right time to go. He returned to academia after leaving Parliament, becoming a Professor of Law at Victoria University before moving on to the University of Iowa and resuming a legal career.
It would be unfair to rate Mike Moore’s career as a former Prime Minister having held the post for only two months before an unavoidable defeat in the 1990 election. He remained Labour leader through the 1993 election, which National narrowly managed to keep a majority with fifty out of ninety-nine seats, but was then toppled by Helen Clark in December that year. He remained in Parliament until 1999 becoming Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.
The next former Prime Minister was National’s Jim Bolger in 1997. Bolger had won the 1990 election by the largest landslide in New Zealand history, a feat unlikely to be repeated since the change in the voting system in 1996. Bolger had been opposed to the Rogernomics reforms of the previous Labour government and had been elected to Government on a platform of creating a “Decent Society.” Bolger’s experience as Prime Minister would be very familiar to David Lange, being caught off-guard by the need to bail out the Bank of New Zealand three days after winning the 1990 election at a cost of $380 million. The subsequent 1991 Budget required borrowing a sum of double that amount and a programme unkindly dubbed Ruthanasia, after Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson. This budget cut enormous amounts of spending in health, welfare and education. It introduced user-charges in education and failed to remove the superannuation surcharge promised by Bolger. The 1991 Employment Contracts Act also eliminated industry mandated awards negotiation and destroyed the membership of trade unions, with individuals now being free to negotiate their own employment agreements.
Bolger remained Prime Minister until 1997, having managed to narrowly win the 1993 election and hold on to a one-seat majority in coalition with New Zealand First following the first MMP election in 1996. New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters had been largely expected to enter into a coalition with Labour but managed to extort a high price for his support from Bolger, becoming Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister and getting several cabinet positions awarded to inexperienced New Zealand First MPs. This situation didn’t take long to become intolerable to many in the National party and Bolger found himself facing a leadership coup while overseas in 1997. Jenny Shipley won the coup and Bolger resigned from Parliament in 1998.
Following his exit from Parliament, Bolger became New Zealand’s Ambassador to the United States until 2001. His initial career direction as a former Prime Minister, in my opinion, was ideal in terms of personal dignity and avoided him becoming a problem for the next PM through retaining public profile of bitterness and resentment. When he returned to New Zealand, possibly to the horror of figures in the National opposition and the delight of Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, he was appointed Chairman of NZ Post and Kiwibank. In 2010 he became chairman of Kiwirail, the formerly privatised rail company repurchased by Helen Clark’s Labour government. In 2018, he led the government working group designing a regime of Fair Pay Employment Agreement’s similar to that which his Government had destroyed in 1991.
While Bolger initially did well in finding a new career path in 1998, his return to New Zealand in 2001 commenced a career including positions that would have been an anathema to the Government he led in the 1990s. To spend 2018 designing the replacement of the employment relations regime his government created in 1991 raised more eyebrows than his Chairmanship of Kiwibank or Kiwirail. In that year Bolger became a public personality very different from that of the fourth National Government; expressing public regret for some of the actions he undertook as Prime Minister.
Jenny Shipley never won a general election as Prime Minister, taking the position unopposed in 1997 following Jim Bolger’s resignation in 1997 while in coalition government with New Zealand First. The governing arrangement became increasingly unstable from that time leading up until the sacking of Winston Peters from cabinet in 1998, the exit and obliteration of New Zealand First in 1998 and the limping of the National-led Government to the next election with a one seat majority, maintained by the support of Mauri Pacific, United, Act, Mana Wahine and several independent MPs. Shipley lost the 1999 election and was deposed as National leader by Bill English in 2001.
Shipley did well to reinvent herself following her retirement from politics in 2002, taking on several business and charitable positions since then. The only black mark on her post-politics career was her resignation from the Board of Directors of Mainzeal in 2012 which went into receivership and then liquidation owing $110 million in 2013. Last year the New Zealand High Court ruled Mainzeal had failed in their duty to avoid reckless trading and that Shipley was herself liable for $6 million in damages. While very damaging for Shipley personally, she had long been in a position disassociated with politics and this had little impact on the National party.
This brings me to Helen Clark and the unfortunate hangover she has transformed herself into for current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Shortly following defeat in the 2008 election, Clark resigned as MP for Mt. Albert, a position she had held for 27 years. She didn’t leave politics altogether, though, and was appointed to the position of Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme before being elected unanimously by the General Assembly as the Chair of the UN Development Group, the third most powerful position in the UN. Clark served two four-year terms as the administrator of the UNDP before stepping down to unsuccessfully pursue election to General Secretary of the United Nations.
Returning to New Zealand, Clark has maintained a high public profile partially through her avid use of social media. That has ensured she remains, as the former Prime Minister of the previous Labour government, a figure of comparison to the current Prime Minister of today’s Labour government. Ardern is not blameless in this arrangement, having become the MP for Clark’s old electorate in Mt. Albert ,and she has allowed Clark to present herself as somewhat of a mentor and therefore a much bigger ‘prick’ than Muldoon could ever have been.
As a resident of the neighbourhood of Mt. Eden, Clark has been an extraordinarily damaging NIMBY, sticking her jackboots into the activities of the Eden Park stadium. The objections of this neighbourhood to any activities at the stadium, including chartiable concerts, have ensured the stadium continues to be a financial disaster reliant on multi-million dollar ratepayer handouts from Auckland Council.
Clark continues to be quite prominent through the activities of her think-tank foundation, which I imagine isn’t always appreciated by Ardern. Following the recommendation of the Taxation Working Group for a Capital Gains Tax to reduce the value of housing, Ardern did a classic John Key step of exchanging principle for politics and sacrificing a policy she probably privately considered to be essential, in pledging there would never be a Capital Gains Tax implemented for as long as she is Prime Minister. I suspect Winston Peters may have been pulling the strings behind the scenes on this issue, as Ardern has significantly raised the stakes by linking it to her own Prime Ministership. Just two months ago a report from the Helen Clark foundation recommended the implementation of a Capital Gains Tax to drive down price inflation in the property market. The foundation structure could be designed as a means for Helen Clark to advocate her own political views while remaining technically disassociated but naming it after herself eliminates any effort at that public perception.
Due to her previous internationalist work at the UN, it is unsurprising that Clark continues to be a media feature for her opinion on the manner in which New Zealand’s Government and the World Health Organisation deal with the spread of the virus. On Wednesday she labelled the Trump Administration’s decision to stop funding the WHO foolish and expressed her personal disappointment at the lack of a global response to deal with the elimination of Covid19.
The political career of Helen Clark is long finished, and she would be best to recognise this and go into a dignified retirement. Her continued advocacy of internationalism is of little benefit to the public exchange of ideas, and the effect is out of proportion to their value. They’re especially inconvenient to governance by the new generation of Labour politicians, and needlessly so.