By AUDREY YOUNG, political editor

After weeks of combat over the politics of race, Prime Minister Helen Clark and National leader Don Brash are getting personal, trading subtle insults yesterday over their marriages and religious beliefs.

The personal remarks may create tension as Parliament resumes today after a week's recess.

Helen Clark is an agnostic.


She made the declaration yesterday in response to a claim by Dr Brash that she was an atheist.

"I am not going to have Dr Brash describe my personal beliefs," she said. "I'm not aware I have ever described myself as an atheist.

"I describe myself as an agnostic."

Later, she told the Herald she was brought up a Presbyterian, went to Sunday school every week at Te Pahu, and at Epsom Girls' Grammar walked "in a crocodile" every Sunday morning to St Luke's Church in Remuera.

She also took exception to comments Dr Brash made about her marriage.

Both were in a letter he wrote to the dean of the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch declining an invitation to speak there.

The invitation was issued after disapproval was expressed about a Helen Clark speech at the cathedral.

"You will be aware of my views that it is not appropriate for a cathedral to be used for such purposes, even leaving aside the Prime Minister's atheism, her abandonment of grace at state function and her indifference to the institution of marriage," Dr Brash wrote.

Helen Clark said the comments were "absolutely ridiculous", then appeared to cast doubt on Dr Brash's record in the marriage stakes.

"Put it this way: I've had only one marriage and it has gone since 1981 to the present day and it's a relationship now of 26 1/2 years' standing."

Dr Brash has been married twice. Several years after divorcing his first wife, Erica, he married Je Lan Foo, a former colleague at the Kiwifruit Authority.

Dr Brash is the son of the late Dr Alan Brash, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

Don Brash could not be contacted last night but told North & South magazine when asked if he believed there was a god: "If you mean, 'Do I believe there is a supernatural being with whom I can talk', then no."

Helen Clark was persuaded to marry Peter Davis before she stood for Mt Albert in 1981.

She told Virginia Myers in the book Head and Shoulders: "I think legal marriage is unnecessary, and I would not have formalised the relationship except for going into Parliament."

The bout between Dr Brash and Helen Clark follows another row about the place of the churches in politics, arising from Dr Brash's Orewa speech attacking special treatment for Maori and the influence of the Treaty of Waitangi.

A group of bishops joined forces to attack his conclusions.

Helen Clark chose the Christchurch Cathedral to deliver her formal response to Dr Brash.

Dr Brash took over as National's leader in October, but the heat between him and Helen Clark has been evident only this year, since National overtook Labour in the polls.

Under pressure to recover ground, Helen Clark has courted unpopularity in her own caucus by promising a review of Maori-targeted funding, appointing Trevor Mallard to the new post of Race Relations Minister and supporting a commission of inquiry into the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand.

During the recess, Helen Clark instructed officials to come up with options for a treaty inquiry. The Cabinet discussed it yesterday but no decisions were made.

National's deputy leader, Gerry Brownlee, said yesterday that the delay in an announcement was "another u-turn."

"Helen Clark is like a soldier who has lost the map to her own minefield - she is stuck in the middle with nowhere to step. Her own caucus is hopelessly divided over the issue."


According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary:

ATHEISM is the theory or belief that God does not exist.

AGNOSTICS believe nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.