Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Clark able to take on the world

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Helen Clark. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Helen Clark. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Helen Clark's 60th birthday this week is a golden time for her.

New Zealand's long-serving former Prime Minister, now the head of the huge United Nations Development Programme, has been elevated to the Order of New Zealand (ONZ), our highest honour.

Hours after her investiture it was over to the university for an honorary doctorate. Then a weekend of parties which, she tells me, she has tried to keep fairly tight in terms of numbers.

Family and first cousins yesterday, and today some of the old party people who supported her for so long in Mt Albert and other old colleagues.

In the middle of all that, she has an early morning drive from Waihi to be pestered by me and my colleagues on TV One's Q+A.

Clark has had, by any measure, a wonderful career. Well, why would one put it in the past tense? Rather, she is having a wonderful career.

She had a long rise to power, not without its frustrations, the 1996 election failure probably most severe among them and then something of a struggle to hold the Labour leadership following that. "They blinked," she once told me.

Despite the doubts expressed by some of the senior figures in Labour at the time, she kept them close throughout her nine years of premiership. And if 1996 was a bad time for her, the loss in 2008 must have hit hard as well. In fact we know it did. Peter told us it did.

But it is a career that has always progressed. It refuses to be stopped. It simply progresses. Now she moves at the highest levels of the international community in her United Nations role.

We all wonder, I guess, whether she might have one eye on the job of Secretary-General. The more I think about it, the more I think she could make it if she wanted to.

The Secretary-General is nominated by the Security Council and ratified by the General Assembly. That nomination by the Security Council, at which countries have a veto, is the probable reason there has never been a Russian, American, French or a Chinese holder of the office. As Wikipedia tells us, Secretaries-General have always been people from the less inflammatory countries, from the medium-powered countries and people who were not widely known before they were appointed.

There have only been eight of them since 1946. They hold the job for five years but may be re-appointed time and again.

Actually there have been nine, if you count the Briton Gladwyn Jebb, who was Acting Secretary-General from October 1945 until the appointment of the first Secretary-General, the Norwegian Trygvie Lie in February 1946.

Lie was actually nominated by the Soviet Union. He was their man. He once met Lenin. But he supported South Korea after the Chinese invaded the peninsula and after that the Russians were over him and opposed his reappointment in 1951.

The Americans secured his hold on the job by going straight to the General Assembly.

But the Korean War dragged on, the Russians continued their niggle with him and he quit in 1952 and went back to Norway.

Since then we've had the erudite and cultured Swede, Dag Hammerskjold, who was killed in a never-explained aircraft crash in what was then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in 1961. The Russians couldn't stand him either.

They couldn't seem to stand anyone, actually, in those days and beat everyone up. Hammerskjold's was the first death of a world statesman I can remember.

Then came the Burmese U Thant, who held the job for 10 years. Thant got the job because the developing world insisted it had to go to one of theirs.

After him came the Austrian Kurt Waldheim who ran the place for the next decade. Waldheim came to a play I was in once, in Vienna, and I met him afterwards. He seemed a very grey man. I don't know what such a grand figure was doing at our theatre.

Perhaps he got his theatres mixed up and should have been at the flasher English theatre on the other side of town. Anyway, Waldheim did his 10 years until 1981 and then in the mid-80s it was discovered Kurt had been involved in bit of Nazi war crime business and he became the number one international persona non grata. The files on him had been in the UN archive since the UN was formed.

Then we had Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Peruvian, then Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Egyptian, then Kofi Annan, from Ghana, and now we have Ban Ki Moon.

The point I'm making is about the countries from which the Secretaries-General have come: Norway, Sweden, Burma, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea. It is not inconceivable for an able, experienced New Zealander to take a turn at the helm of the United Nations.

And, of course, there is a broad consensus among the United Nations that the job of Secretary-General should be shared out among the different regions of the world. Why not Oceania? Clark has always had a keen international focus, is known by senior leaders around the world and will be even more so now.

At the United Nations as she is, she is in a perfect position to lobby, to establish herself among the international diplomatic community. And one thing diplomats will be learning is what we found out here over many years, that Helen Clark is an incredibly safe pair of hands.

She would not, surely, be offensive to the Europeans, the North Americans, the Russians or the Chinese. She might find a generous well of support among the Africans and the Asian nations with the work she is doing on the UN Development Programme.

Even the timing may favour her. The incumbent Secretary-General is a month short of 66. His first term runs out at the end of next year when he will be approaching 68. It is hard to see that he would want another five years.

Even if he did, the international community might feel he is getting past it. Clark would be just short of her 62nd birthday and perfectly placed from the points of view not only of age, but also experience.

Whatever is in the stars for Clark, crashing out on a couch with a bad book and spending days reading for the fun of it is not. There is none of that DNA in her. There will continue to be progress. The eyes will be looking well ahead.

She was made a big fuss of here this week and it was only right that we did. It is not every day that you get the ONZ, an honorary doctorate and turn 60 all at once.

Happy birthday, Helen. You are, really, quite incredible. Oh, for such a career as yours. And please don't bash me around on the programme this morning.

- Herald on Sunday

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