Three political commentators agree the former Labour leader was a shrewd and formidable politician, but wonder what the lasting impression of her will be after nine years at the nation's helm.

Key Points:

Laila Harre:

It's 1996. Nine weeks after the general election. Before it, Helen Clark has faced off a challenge from senior colleagues (led by Michael Cullen, with Phil Goff and Annette King close by) and won a real chance to form a Government. Winston Peters holds that chance in his hands. Jim Anderton is white-anting it.

Peters appears on television to announce his choice. National. I am sure no human can survive this humiliation, this disappointment.


Clark does.

Fast forward to 2008. Her 1996 challengers are all in tow, if not in the room, when she announces her vacating of Labour's leadership. She has been rescuing Peters all year and Jim Anderton's bottom lines are long forgotten.

She (with her "extra self" Heather Simpson) and Cullen have negotiated a complex political partnership where neither needed full control and within which some of the tougher political arguments were had (over the West Coast forests and later tax cuts for example).

Her last act as leader is to hand over to Goff and King.

Her legacy is redemption: Restoring the dignity of her political cohort - those social democrats who came to mainstream politics burnished in the causes of the 60s and 70s and whose reputation was in tatters by the end of the 1980s.

Her unequivocal commitment to Labour as an institution meant her colleagues could trust her. Some of us find it hard to be tribal about our politics. She doesn't and at least until now New Zealand politics has been fundamentally tribal. The big tribes have fragmented but not to the extent the enormous support for the Alliance and NZ First in the 1990s was indicating.

Time will tell whether she (and Cullen) exposed their tribe to the risk of a permanent and fundamental cleavage through the Foreshore and Seabed debate and the formation of the Maori Party.

C.E. (Clarence) Beeby, Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser's architect of free public education, described how each generation constructs a myth about its purpose against which it can judge its progress.


Such a myth must be consistent with a "general accord", a strong aspiration, permit a wide range of interpretations while providing practical guidance, and importantly be "unattainable in the near future" so that it is sustained through change.

Paradoxically, "people working under the myth must believe in it so completely that they will fight for it in its youth, hold to it in its middle age, but be prepared to see another myth set up in its place when it has served its purpose".

There has been some criticism both of Clark's failure to invent a "new vision" or to pass political power to a new generation. But the first was not her historical task. That task has been to re-build her generation's capacity to deliver progress on its "myth" after the shredding it got in the 1980s and 1990s.

As for a new generation? They (we) have not yet created the new myth by which we will measure our progress. That's our job, not her's.


Former Alliance MP Laila Harre was Women's Affairs Minister in Helen Clark's first Cabinet.

John Armstrong:

History can be cruel. It may turn out to be Michael Cullen's legacy - not Helen Clark's - by which the outgoing Labour Administration is remembered.

Labour's most iconic achievements - the New Zealand superannuation fund, Kiwisaver, the re-nationalisation of the railways and the purchase of a majority stake in Air New Zealand - will forever be identified as Cullen's trophies, not Clark's.

Add to that list Cullen's and Steve Maharey's joint ownership of the redistributive Working for Families scheme and Jim Anderton's Kiwibank.

Helen Clark's legacy from nine years in power is more ethereal.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, carbon neutrality, the abolition of knighthoods and not joining the Iraq war were about building national identity. Just as the mothballing of the Skyhawks was an early pointer to a more independent foreign policy.

Clark made a singular contribution to New Zealand's unwritten constitution by restructuring the models for minority government so they work constructively for all parties.

But neither foreign policy nor constitutional theory is the stuff of headlines. Neither is the ethos of equality of opportunity which underpinned Labour's vast social policy programme.

It was Clark who gave Labour an ideological overhaul to chart its way back after the trauma of the Roger Douglas years.

While the reputations of others in her Cabinet prospered, it was Clark who kept the show on the road.

She watched the Kirk-Rowling Government of the 1970s stumble to one-term defeat. She observed first-hand the infighting which destroyed the Lange Government. She vowed she would not suffer either fate.

She instilled unity and discipline into Labour - the reason why Labour is not tearing itself apart after last Saturday's heavy defeat. The party is comfortable with itself. It did not panic and adopt populist policies which would have clashed with its principles. That was down to Clark.

Overall, she has been a technocratic prime minister; someone who will be remembered more for her management abilities than a capacity to inspire.

She emphasised the "prime" in prime minister - constantly watching for anything threatening to throw her Government off course. She was wary of the vanity of self-importance.

Such relentless focus on her Government's goals, her grasp of detail, her constant networking and gauging of public opinion, and her understanding of the importance of the media made her a formidable foe.

Failures? The still pedestrian pace of economic growth under benign circumstances shines out.

History will not accord her the status of Michael Joseph Savage or Richard Seddon (or which might have been accorded David Lange had things not gone so terribly wrong for him).

Those prime ministers led great reforming Governments. Clark ran more of a repairing one. But she ran it masterfully and for three terms. Historians are better qualified to say whether she matched or surpassed the likes of Peter Fraser or Sir Keith Holyoake. What is not in doubt is that she has been by far the best prime minister since Holyoake trod the political stage in the 1960s.

* John Armstrong is the Herald's political correspondent.

Dr Michael Bassett:

Helen Clark's nine years as Prime Minister came near to Peter Fraser's record leading the Labour Government from 1940 to 1949.

He headed a Government that completed many of the details of the early welfare state. Clark believed she was his successor when her activist Government poured money into public health and education and pushed its regulating nose into telecommunications, breaking up Telecom, controlling electricity, and stopping Auckland Airport's sale, destroying much of the Mum and Dad share values in the process.

But times have changed since the 1940s. For decades the evidence has been showing that over-regulation slows growth. Just pouring money into health doesn't provide more operations in hospitals or better care.

Much goes into bureaucracy. Education suffered similarly. Fraser stressed literacy and numeracy.

His Government introduced School Certificate and national standards for tertiary entry. These qualifications helped working folk, providing a ladder out of poverty. NCEA has not won their level of acceptance.

Clark's Government presided over a steady decline in educational standards in poorer suburbs. The re-introduction of school zoning ghettoises kids in the underclass, while "play-school education" and stress on cultural studies means that many leave school ill-equipped to escape poverty.

Fraser's Labour worshipped the work ethic. He abhorred those who chose not to work. However, by hanging grimly to her 1970s welfare agendas, Clark nudged only a tiny percentage of long-term beneficiaries into work at a time when the nation's income was never better.

Instead, the third generation of kids born into poverty continued to slug it out in dysfunctional homes where family violence and underachievement are endemic.

The crisis in Maoridom mushroomed under Clark's watch. Some of the most gut-wrenching crimes in our history can indirectly be laid at the door of a ministry that refused to get to grips with the anti-social incentives that long-term welfare gives to trapped families. It now looks as if the National Party and its unprecedented deal with the Maori Party, that understands the corrosive effects of dependency, will deal at last with Maori problems. Let's hope. Where was Labour when ingenuity was required?

Clark was formidable, ruling her caucus with an iron rod. She'd frighten, or charm, most journalists into submission.

On foreign policy she played a shrewd hand. She got nine years in office.

But continued economic growth, that does so much to lift the living standards of Labour voters, trickled through her fingers. A growth rate above the OECD average in 2000 slipped in 2004 to below average, long before the world economic crisis.

Huge productivity gains from the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s collapsed. New Zealand slipped a couple of notches on the OECD ladder, while the flow of skilled emigrants, desperately needed at home, turned into a torrent. What was Clark's Government about except social engineering? It certainly wasn't "the economy, stupid".

It was more about a fuzzy "inclusiveness" (except for those imprisoned in the underclass), anti-smacking and gay marriage.

Debatable at best, they were incapable of restoring the country to the world standing it enjoyed in Fraser's day.