Michele Hewitson Interview: Helen Clark

By Michele Hewitson

She's gone from being Prime Minister to heading the UN's development programme from New York, which she loves - 'the T-shirt was made for me'

Helen Clark, the number three person at the UN, is still a big character, and an intriguing one. Photo / Steven McNichol
Helen Clark, the number three person at the UN, is still a big character, and an intriguing one. Photo / Steven McNichol

Helen Clark, or "The Lady" as the maitre d' at the restaurant rightly and delightfully called her, was in town but she was, as always, busy, busy, busy. She had a brief gap, but was having her hair cut. Perhaps I could interview her at the salon?

No, I could not, but we could meet at a place for lunch over the road from Servilles in Newmarket where she always goes when she's home. That was pretty nice of her. You'd have never dared suggest an interview at the hairdressers when she was PM. So I sat there and waited and wondered why on earth I wanted to attempt to interview her again, given that I have failed, abysmally, to do so on other occasions. On one of these occasions, after she won her third term, I had to put a pen through almost all of my questions within 10 minutes of arriving because they were all of a theme: Had she entertained the notion that she might not win? No. Had anyone dared raise the idea that she might not win? No, and so on. She had a good time during that interview and laughed during almost all of it.

Some things about her haven't changed a bit. After lunch - she had a spicy Sicilian pizza, if you really want to know; "that's me!" she said, a tad spicily - she went off to have her hair done and I went to pay.

There wasn't ever any question about who was going to pay: The paper was. I'd have insisted, of course, but usually there's a token attempt on the part of the interviewee to put their hand in their pocket. She just said, "thank you for lunch", and off she went. Laughing on the inside, no doubt. And no doubt it served me right. I'd been teasing her about her legendary frugality, just a bit. You wouldn't want to overstep the line which, while not quite as emphatically drawn as it was when she was PM, is still much in evidence. She likes to have the last laugh and I have to give it to her. If I was going to bang on about her thriftiness, I could damn well pay.

She's been back in the country from New York, where she lives and works as the third most important person at the United Nations in her role as head of the UN's development programme. It is a Big Job, the sort that is described in Capital Letters, and she says there was no job in NZ she could have done after being PM for so long. I wondered if she thought that was a shame, in any way, and she said: "I think that's reality. I mean, what else could Tony Blair do in Great Britain?"

The country, she says, is too small for ex-PMs. "Too small to create a space." She needs a bigger space than most ex-PMs. She is a big character and remains an intriguing one. At least she's always intrigued me. I'm not sure she intrigues herself, overly. She has always had her gaze held firmly upwards and outwards - which is one way of saying the very thought of navel-gazing would earn one of her dismissive honks. She was a farmer's daughter, after all, and, at her realist, practical core, still is.

She is also still terrifying, although she was in very good, almost indulgent, humour and what passes for chatty. You would not have entertained the idea of eating pizza with her when she was PM. (She wouldn't have entertained the idea of pizza with me when she was PM.) Still, if I'd been eating pizza with anyone else except perhaps the Queen, I'd have eaten it with my fingers. She used a knife and fork and so, of course, did I.

She's in town at an interesting time. The Labour Party conference is this weekend and there are rumblings about David Shearer's chances of holding on to the leadership. Don't bother asking her about these things. She's not even going to the conference, though she says she was asked to so that she might be presented with a "gold badge and life membership. I said I didn't think it was appropriate". Why ever not? "Because I'm holding a senior diplomatic position. And I'm just standing aside at the moment."

Somebody suggested before I went to see her that she might be wonderfully indiscreet now she's out of the game, but, ha, ha. She didn't tell me she'd popped in to see David Shearer in his office in Wellington on Tuesday night. I read it in the paper yesterday.

All she'd say about him is that she "hardly" knows him; about as well as she knows John Key. (Well, enough to pop in on though, apparently. I bet he got a fright.) So she's as close-mouthed as ever and warned me before we met that she doesn't enter into debate about NZ politics. "You might want to keep that in mind."

Keeping that in mind, I asked if she was going to write a memoir. She said she was far too busy and: "You know, I could say it's too early. Ha, ha, ha."

Oh, probably. I did ask if she wants to be head of the UN and she said: "My answer to that is that I have the best job in the UN now because in Development you always have a positive and focused job. The Secretary-General's job is overwhelmed by the political and security issues, which are extremely taxing and hard to resolve because of the structure of the Security Council in particular. Take Syria. So, for me, coming out of the intense, you know, partisanship of New Zealand politics, to go to the Development Programme and pretty much have a free run to do positive things, I find that refreshing."

She's the good guy now. "Yeah! We're the good guys."

You can see that it might be refreshing to be the good guy. Not that she cares what people think of her. She really doesn't seem to, which is partly what makes her so intriguing, and scary. It's her relentless self-belief and indifference to being liked. I asked if she knew - or was interested in why she was such a good politician. (The past tense was wrong; she is still a politician.) She wouldn't be offended if I said I thought a large part of what made her such a good politician is that she doesn't care whether people like her? "No." The Herald's deputy political editor, Claire Trevett, had written a column for that morning's paper which ended: "Nobody dared call Helen Clark 'nice'."

"Ha, ha. Well, she could have! I wouldn't mind somebody saying it! I do think in public life, if your aim is to be liked, you're going to let people down because you're always going to be agreeing with this one, agreeing with that one ..." That might have been a bit pointed, but there was no point asking. I tried her on John Key's gaffes, but she didn't bite.

You'd think she might miss being the PM. You'd be very silly to think any such thing. "No. Shut the door on it," she said, shutting the door on any further outlandish questions on that matter of no consequence. She was really cross with her husband, Peter Davis, when he told a journalist, after the 2008 election, that she felt rejected. "Yes, I did. It didn't really express how I felt at all." Perhaps he felt that she felt rejected. "He might have but ... I don't need him feeling something for me." But you can't, can you, dictate what other people are feeling for you? I thought that it was rather sweet, actually. "Well, if it had expressed how I felt, that would be fine! But that just wasn't a sentiment I would have expressed. When you're going for a fourth term, you're reasonably realistic about the prospects. I mean, you're always kind of working for the tide to turn back in your favour. But you wouldn't be in the contest if you were afraid of losing."

Here's a poser. If she was still PM you'd never have dared ask; if she was still PM the question wouldn't have been there to ask. Still, it felt like asking for trouble - quite likely in the form of her infamous death's head glare - to ask if she'd cried when she lost. The real surprise was that she answered at all. "On the night, absolutely not. Then after it was over ... I was so exhausted, you know. You probably don't realise how tired you are and suddenly you don't have to carry on that pace. And the campaign, you know, that was a very tough campaign." So there were tears at some point. "Possibly at some point. But not out of self-pity, ha, or concern for myself, just exhaustion."

I was honestly so amazed by this that I couldn't think what to say. So - what else? -I started talking about her hair. Um, was she letting it go grey? She laughed long and hard at that. "No! I never put anything in it. Ha, ha, ha. It's as it was."

But is she? Yes, of course, and no, almost imperceptibly, not quite. A layer, a thin one, has possibly been peeled off by defeat - although she would scoff at that. Perhaps she's just reverted to the person she was before she put on the armour that went with being the PM.

Also, for all that she doesn't care about being liked, it must make for a happier existence being one of the Good Guys, and she's obviously at home in the UN. It is a place, for one thing, where nobody blinks an eye at the fact that she lives in New York and Peter lives here. Plenty of UN staffers have such arrangements, she says; career couples often do. But she didn't mind me asking if people thought it was weird.

She loves New York - "the T-shirt was made for me" - and her nice apartment with views of the UN building and the Chrysler Building and the East River. I said it amused me that her apartment was in the Trump Towers - meaning it was a bit funny for a socialist. She didn't think it was a very good joke. "Well, it's very handy to the UN."

She's still run around in a government limo when she's home, but even socialist ex-PMs get that perk.

She did think it was funny when I suggested it might be a bit annoying for Peter when she comes home, which wasn't a joke. "Ha, ha. I unsettle his habits." I asked if he'd bought a new washing machine. (He once told me she wouldn't allow a new one, despite it being 20 years old and second-hand when they bought it.) "He did! He bought a new TV too. I've given up. He runs the house. I'll re-establish control some time, but not just yet. Ha, ha, ha!"

Nice? She's certainly much more fun to interview than she was when she was PM. But much as I'd like to dare to say she's nice, she's much more interesting than that. Of course the really annoying thing is that she knows it.

- NZ Herald

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