The Order of New Zealand, our highest national honour, limited to 20 living citizens at any time, contains too many politicians whose achievements, while worthy, were not exceptional. No such criticism can be made of the latest member, whose appointment heads the New Year Honours announced today.

Helen Clark led the country through all but the last year of the decade that passes tonight. The quality of her leadership impressed both friend and foe, as evidenced by this award.

Her National successor has not hidden his willingness to consult her when possible and his own caution in office appears to have been learned from observing her for nine assured years.

When New Zealand historians study the first decade of the 21st century they will note the stability the country enjoyed after the economic and political upheaval of preceding decades.

They should also note that the stability was made possible by that same upheaval; if previous Governments had not re-oriented New Zealand's economy to open markets and taken many of the measures necessary to maintain a competitive living standard, the protected, indebted welfare state would have been in sad and shabby condition at the millennium.

Instead the economy was growing strongly, with unemployment dropping steadily, inflation near zero and budgets in surplus, when Helen Clark came to power promising no more unmandated change. She kept her word, neither reversing reform significantly nor advancing it.

Her Labour Government gave workers a retirement savings incentive, extended their holiday, maternity and childcare benefits and began to put budget surpluses into a fund for the baby boomers' retirement, but did little to improve the nation's potential wealth.

Arguably, the country could afford the decade of stasis. When the worldwide boom ended in a financial system collapse last year, New Zealand was reasonably well ballasted with low public debt and solid banks.

Sustained growth had led to a labour shortage that left employers wary of laying of staff when the recession arrived. But the budget surpluses disappeared quickly in the downturn and the new Government will need to trim some of Labour's fat from the public sector.

Helen Clark's achievements were political rather than economic. She restored a necessary degree of public confidence in the nation's democracy.

An electorate can bear unmandated change for only so long, however necessary it may be. The surprises sprung on the populace by both governing parties over nine years from 1984 had already produced a change in the electoral system. Distrust of Labour had taken the party perilously close to losing its position to the Alliance.

Not the least of Helen Clark's achievements was to restore Labour's credibility among its own supporters. It was a hard grind from the time she took the party's leadership in 1994 and that task was not completed a year or two into this decade, when she had been Prime Minister long enough to convince voters her Government would not exceed its mandate.

They rewarded her with two more election victories, making her the first Labour Prime Minister to win three terms. She survived longer than any Prime Minister since Sir Keith Holyoake and she was of course the first female Prime Minister to be elected.

It is fitting that she is honoured by the country at the close of a decade in its life that she dominated. Already the times have changed. The recession has exposed fiscal deficiencies and investment distortions that will need unpopular correctives. But the Clark decade was comfortable, sensible, reassuring. Here's to her.