What did the world lose when it missed the chance to make Helen Clark secretary-general of the United Nations? What did she lose when she was denied that opportunity? Simon Wilson spent an afternoon with Clark this week, talking about her career, her prospects and her speeches, collected in a book published tomorrow.

"This is apocalyptic," she said. Pursed lips, poised elegantly on the chair, thinking it through carefully. Helen Clark the way she always was – except she wasn't inclined to use words like that before.

I'd asked her, with climate change, the refugee crisis, the bleak prospects for jobs and the rise of populist politicians, did she think we could be heading for an apocalyptic moment?

She gave a very big sigh. She quoted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "The last data I saw they were saying there's a only a 5 per cent chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in temperature by the end of the century, and we know that's catastrophic. It's a tipping point. Many now say it's only 1.5 degrees, which we're perilously close to."

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She paused again, then nodded. "This is apocalyptic." It's a big word. An end of times word. She ticked off a list: "Water stress, ability to farm, food security, biosecurity, just on that side it's very challenging."

VIDEO: Helen Clark on climate change, war and the apocalypse

Helen Clark wanted to do something about it. She was head of the United Nations Development Programme, third ranked at the UN, and she wanted to become secretary-general so she could do something about it. But they didn't want her.

Gaylene Preston made a movie about it, My Year with Helen, which the two of them have taken to screenings all around the world. The movie is uplifting, for what it shows about the networks of activists, especially women, who are getting things done.

But that's the minor key. The main theme is horrifying. My Year with Helen reveals a UN not only capable of making bad choices, but, when it comes to choosing an effective leader, systemically incapable of making a good choice.

Does she think it was impossible that in 2016 a woman would be chosen for that job?

"In retrospect, yes. But you don't know until you try."

That wasn't the worst of it. The movie makes it clear that the top job at the UN will go to a person the Security Council judges is not capable of challenging Russia, or the United States, or China. An ineffectual glad-hander.

"The tragedy," said Clark, "is that the world is looking for leadership. We had some conversations as to whether I should present as not a strong leader. Pretend that I was an ineffectual person who wouldn't say boo to a goose. But that wasn't me."

She laughed, and fair enough, the idea is ridiculous. What did she think was the more damaging to her candidacy: being a woman or being a strong person?

"They conflated. Strong women are seen as threatening."

So the better she would have been as secretary-general, the more frightening they would have found her?

"I think so."

VIDEO: Helen Clark on her bid for the UN top job

This is Helen Clark we're talking about. Nobody's ever doubted her resolve, her determination to get things done the way she wants them done, but she's not going to set off any bombs. Even verbally. Clark is not a confrontational socialist like Bernie Sanders, nor even an oratorical wizard like David Lange.

She has a new book, Women Equality Power, a compilation of the key speeches of her career. Taken as a whole they're a record of astonishing discipline, each one of them a precisely measured explanation of a political reality, specific to its place and time. She never attacks. She never inflames. She is the quiet, persistent, step-by-step achiever.

She has "the philosophy that you know where you want to go, but you can't go there in one leap so what are the series of steps that will . . . get you where you want to go."

Being a steady incrementalist instead of a shake-it-all-up activist allowed her to be prime minister for nine years. An extraordinary feat, especially for a Labour leader, and especially given she had minority governments and unreliable coalition partners all the way. But at the UN she was too scary.

Helen Clark, Labour MP goes through her maiden speech under the eyes of fellow new members in the debating chamber at Parliament. Photo / Herald Archive
Helen Clark, Labour MP goes through her maiden speech under the eyes of fellow new members in the debating chamber at Parliament. Photo / Herald Archive

I think this is the truth about Helen Clark. She doesn't get up people's noses with the way she carries on. She makes enemies because she gets things done.

I did ask her about all those sober speeches. She said David Lange was "probably the greatest orator New Zealand politics has ever had. There was no sense in trying to compete with that. I have a different set of skills."

She's funny, though. Dry dry funny. I read her a piece from a speech she gave after the Waitangi Day protests in 1995, when she took an historical perspective: "In 1990 the Queen came to New Zealand and Waitangi Day was marked, not without incident: I recall a pair of pants being thrown, or some such thing."

Did she know at the time that "or some such thing" was funny?

"Yes probably, probably. But I've also found over the years that not everyone gets humour. So humour is a little bit risky. Irony especially. It's quite difficult."

VIDEO: Helen Clark on female leadership, sexism and Hillary Clinton

We spent the afternoon together. She gossiped a bit about the current goings on in Parliament and we did a long formal interview, and then she drove me across town to the Auckland Museum, so we could walk through the exhibition Are We There Yet?, which celebrates the history of feminism in New Zealand.

The control freak who was said to be better-informed than her ministers, she doesn't know what make of car she drives. "It's red," she said when someone asked her to identify it in the car park. "I'm sorry, that's all I know."

Helen Clark and her husband, university lecturer Peter Davis. Photo / Herald Archive
Helen Clark and her husband, university lecturer Peter Davis. Photo / Herald Archive

She's in that exhibition, as our first elected woman prime minister, but so much of the show is her history too. The protests of the 1970s and 1980s, she was there. The Vietnam War was her foundation cause, the one that got her radicalised. Also, abortion rights, equal pay, the Springbok tour, parental leave campaigns, childcare, solidarity for gay rights and Maori land rights, they're all there and so was she.

And Robert Muldoon, the prime minister when she first entered Parliament in 1981, he's got a patronising quote or two in there too. She laughed and said she has never forgotten how in his valedictory speech he talked about "all these women MPs taking over Parliament".

There were 12 of them. Up from just eight when Clark had arrived. There were 41 when she left, though, and 46 now, which Clark was quick to tell me is 38.7 per cent of the total. She looks forward to it being at least 50 per cent and is very confident that will happen.

She was so relaxed. People have always said she's lovely when you get to know her, but that was not an experience given to many journalists. The media belonged to the rough, tough, brutal business of politics and she treated us accordingly. When I interviewed her in 2008, in her last winter in office, her last election campaign, she was closed up and angry.

"It was a tough year," she said now. "Nine years is a long time to be in power and I was tired, the tide was clearly running out, so yeah, it wasn't easy."

We had sat in a cold dark room in her electorate HQ and I had thought, she's seen off three National Party leaders and she's angry because she knows she's finally met her nemesis. She's angry because John Key is, of all things, a finance trader, from an occupation that caused and benefited from the global financial crisis of 2008, a man with an almost magical common touch who does not seem to stand for anything. Her polar opposite.

Helen Clark watching the rugby league match with Trevor Mallard at Carlaw Park. Photo / Herald Archive
Helen Clark watching the rugby league match with Trevor Mallard at Carlaw Park. Photo / Herald Archive

"I should say for the record," she said now, "that I have remained on very good terms with John Key, who was very supportive of me. I couldn't have mounted a credible campaign without his full support and the support of the government." You could never say Helen Clark is a bitter person.

Now, it's like she's experimenting with herself. Not the PM, not the powerhouse of the UN, so who is she going to be?

She was chatty. It was almost like the weight of the world has been lifted from her shoulders.

The exhibition ends with a big photo of an older woman holding up a sign: "I can't believe I am still protesting this s***. #1970s." She read it and laughed.


Read more careers news at yudu.co.nz.

What was she going to do, if she'd kept on carrying that weight? If she'd got the UN job?

In June last year Clark made a speech in Canberra called "The Leadership We Need". She was blunt. Violent conflict was on the rise, she said, after being in long-term decline for decades. Sixty-five million people have been displaced, most within their own countries, with 21 million of them now refugees.

Extreme poverty, defined as living on an income less than US$1.90 a day, has declined enormously over the past 30 years but the UN target is that it be eliminated by 2030. Three quarters of a billion people must be raised above the line in just 12 years – and there are 1.9 billion who live in such "fragile" circumstances they could easily sink below it.

Very few countries have any idea how to deal with the disappearance of jobs. Populism is on the march, especially nativist populism, where people believe they will be better off if their governments keep "outsiders" away.

There's a US$2.5 trillion (NZ$3.7 trillion) gap, per year, between what the world needs to address all this and what we actually spend on it.

Helen Clark, the first Labour Member of Parliament to sit on the Government's front bench. Photo / Herald Archive
Helen Clark, the first Labour Member of Parliament to sit on the Government's front bench. Photo / Herald Archive

So, welcome to her world. What actually was Helen Clark going to do about all that?

Reform the United Nations, for starters. "Here we are 70 years after the formation of the UN, we're stuck with a structure which reflects the outcome of World War II and not the world we see today." The general assembly should be more powerful and the permanent members of the Security Council, the big powers, less so.

As for wars, "It's about looking at root causes. Leaders who have been autocratic and repressive are not going to give way." So, she said, "We should always analyse how something else might have worked."

She had drawn some big lessons from the Arab Spring. "In my third year at UNDP, the Tunisian leader was overthrown quite quickly, then Mubarak in Egypt, and that emboldened others, especially in Yemen, in Libya and in Syria. In each of those cases, if the global community looking on had said, 'This has the potential to go very, very bad . . .'"

The world should have identified the narrow opportunity for negotiated solutions. "But I think in Western capitals there was a feeling they'd be despatched pretty quickly and so nothing was done . . . But actually they didn't cave in, they fought, and look at the wreckage today.

"I don't see any signs there was a serious attempt to reach out and say is there some way we could help mediate here."

She talked about Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria. "He did have a choice, he could have said, 'Come in and start a dialogue,' but that wasn't in his nature."

So the world should have offered. That's the role of the UN? That's what the secretary-general should be doing?

"I think a secretary-general should be scanning the horizon, all the time. I think we need some bold and proactive leadership. Being prepared to go where secretay-generals haven't been for a pretty long time . . . In this day and age you need a secretary-general prepared to get on a plane, go and talk to Kim Jong-un, go and talk to Assad, see what you can do to stop people dying. Because isn't that the ultimate? People shouldn't be dying over politics."

She's got a warm laugh and an exasperated laugh, and this time she produced the exasperated laugh.

Helen Clark heads into a crucial post Selwyn caucus meeting. Photo / Herald Archive
Helen Clark heads into a crucial post Selwyn caucus meeting. Photo / Herald Archive

I asked her about Antonio Guterres, the man chosen by the UN Security Council for this moment in our history. She had nothing to say. It was the only question I asked her all afternoon where she just did not have an answer.

She got pretty fired up talking about refugees. Talking about Europe's response to refugees.

"The irony is that Europe bears a tiny part of the burden. Most Africans are displaced within the continent. Turkey has three million refugees, Lebanon has the equivalent of a quarter of its population . . . But Europe was hysterical in 2015 about a million being dispersed across [the continent]."

The Clark fix – spot the problem early and try to prevent it – applies here too. If the West had provided more help within those countries, "you probably wouldn't have got to boiling point where people started to move in great numbers. But that insight was late coming."

She told me about meeting a refugee family in Turkey. The man had been a small farmer and she asked him what he did now. "He said, 'In the morning I get up and have my breakfast, and mid-morning I go out and have coffee with others. Then we go to the mosque and pray. We have another coffee, then I come home and sit in the tent.' He had been there for three-and-a-half years. I would be going up the wall."

She said Turkey deserves special praise. "I think there's an acceptance now in Turkey that they are going to absorb three million people. So let's not underplay how significant Turkey's contribution is."

A Clark Doctrine emerges. A way to be in politics, a way to run the United Nations. Be clear about your principles. Look ahead. Deal to problems before they deal to you. Go step by step. Be inclusive. Take pleasure in your progress.

Later in the car, though, she told me about a visit to El Salvador, "where criminal gangs have their hooks into every organisation, every part of society".

We were at the limits of the Clark Doctrine. She didn't have an answer, not to that.

What do you do about Donald Trump?

"The coming of President Trump means no one knows where they stand any more, who's a friend and who's a foe."

Still, she's seen men like him before. The political question is why is he so popular. Her answer is inclusionist.

"It's no good denouncing people for being racists or xenophobic or whatever. It's totally counterproductive. They are expressing a genuine emotion that life is not as good as it was."

VIDEO: Helen Clark on Trump, artificial intelligence and the future of NZ

It was the same with Brexit and with Marine Le Pen in France, she said. "It's the flow-on effect in societies where globalisation has taken jobs and nothing has replaced them. You cannot leave communities to go cold turkey, to deal with it on their own."

Wasn't Hillary Clinton talking about those things too?

Yes, she said, but people didn't hear that. "She's a woman and people don't often hear what women say."

Still, she's hopeful. "I'm going to be fascinated to see when the course correction comes. It will come, it's a question of when." She listed the presidential sequence: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump. That's a list of course corrections, however you look at it.

She had something else to say about Hillary Clinton. "Hillary has had a job done on her by her political opponents ever since she was the first lady of Arkansas. Has any woman in the world been attacked as consistently, for decades, the way Hillary has been?"

Maybe Helen Clark?

"I wouldn't put it on the level of what Hillary's had to put up with."

Clinton was on a bigger stage but the sustained nature of the attacks and the nastiness of some of them have been similar, haven't they?

She deflected. "Look, politics is not for the faint-hearted so if you go in, you're going to have to be prepared to hustle."

Was that more true for women?

"Yeah, yeah."

Was it as bad now as ever?

"It's hard to know. I found some of the questions Jacinda was asked in the election campaign quite offensive and I still see offensive material in the papers."

Was Ardern handling it well, did she think?

"She is absolutely right never even to deign to comment. Julia Gillard took on Tony Abott [in Australia] and women loved it, but actually I'm not sure it helped. My view is have a deaf ear."

VIDEO: Helen Clark on Jacinda Ardern

What about this winter of discontent? How does it compare with hers?

In 2000, Clark's first year as prime minister, business confidence plummeted and that's what they called it. The original "winter of our discontent" comes from Shakespeare's Richard III, from a speech in which Richard decides that because he is too deformed to enjoy the pleasures of peace and love, he will be a villain and ruin it for everyone else. Which he then does, with hideous brutality.

"The so-called winter of discontent in 2000 was quite tough," said Clark. "In essence there were vocal elements of the business community who carried on as if the election had never ended. It was corrosive."

Did she mean the Business Roundtable?

"That's correct." But then along came Tony O'Reilly, businessman and former Irish rugby player (and formerly owner of the Herald). "He was one of the people who broke the spell. He came to New Zealand and he said, 'Guys, it's not so bad.' It needs a voice like that now, coming out of left field."

Setting aside the coming apocalypse in the outside world, where did she think New Zealand was at now? Was she excited?

"Jacinda is a new-generation leader, and she's taking on issues which were quite hard for me to take on, going back close to 20 years now. It's like generation 0 or X or whatever it is, is now stepping up. I'm quite optimistic that this could be a very important moment for New Zealand. The homelessness crisis is ghastly, families in poverty is ghastly, and she's grabbing those things."

Did she have a view on how we have a 37-year-old prime minister who is unmarried and has just had a child, when every part of that was inconceivable even 20 years ago, and now it's unremarkable?

"You're right," she said, "it absolutely couldn't have been done in my time".

So why now?

There was that shrug. "She's benefited from being at the right point in the cycle.Timing is everything."

Was Taika Waititi right to say New Zealand is racist?

"His comments are far too tough. I think we're a society in transition, where Māori are in the process of regaining a position of great pride. It's not the society I was born into, it's not the society of the 1970s or the 1980s, I think things have changed immeasurably and changed for the better."

She stressed each one of those last three words. I suggested she's had a tougher time working with Māori than any other progressive politician. Denied the chance to speak at Waitangi; her caucus split by a walkout and all the other battles over the Foreshore and Seabed Act. She was the PM when the police made their armed raids in the Urewera.

VIDEO: Helen Clark on Maori, race relations and Taika Waititi

"I always try to depersonalise things," she said, "because I think there's generally something else going on." She got attacked personally, but the politics of it were probably more important.

Did she think what's good for Māori is good for New Zealand?

"Yes, yes I do."

Did she know that was a Tariana Turia saying?

Yes, she did. "Well look, I worked closely with Tariana for years and I was sad when she went. But that's life."

Helen Clark doesn't offer lots of advice to the Government, at least not in public. She said she doesn't have much to do with them. But she doesn't keep her thoughts to herself.

She's been tweeting about child refugees on Nauru, who suffer high rates of depression. When Ardern visits there next week for the Pacific Islands Forum, Clark told me she expects her to try to secure a new deal for refugee settlement in New Zealand.

"All Jacinda can do is reiterate the long-standing New Zealand offer to be part of the solution. The last two leaders of the government of Australia have not been prepared to accept it. Let's see what Scott Morrison will do."

Trouble is, Morrison isn't going. Ardern will have to deal with his new foreign minister, Marise Payne.

Clark also had some advice on domestic violence and sex abuse. "There should be a sustained focus, not just a media campaign every so often. We are told we have the worst rate of family violence in the OECD, which is disgraceful. We don't know enough about it to know how to intervene. Other counties have better ways of countering it and we need to learn from them."

So where to now for Helen Clark?

She said she isn't looking for another big job. "I like what I do now. Freelance public advocate."

Let's move on, she likes to say. The next thing is more important than the last thing.

Sure, I said, but is there there's no big job she's got her eye on?

"Nope."

Still doing the cross-country skiing?

"Oh yes."

Is she writing a book?

"No," she said again, with a shudder I didn't know how to decipher. Shuddering at the prospect of all that work? That doesn't sound like Helen Clark. At the prospect of negotiating the political minefield? She added that she'd probably have to "wait for a few more people not to be around", but it sounded less like a plan than just something you'd say.

VIDEO: Helen Clark on being PM, social media and what's next

She should write a book. More than one. A Clark memoir would be worth a read. And what about a Clark prescription for the UN and how to save the world?

She said, "I feel a bit retro."

I didn't believe her. Retro is being part of the past, hanging on sentimentally. That's not right at all.

Helen Clark on...

On how to become secretary-general of the UN:

"We had some conversations as to whether I should present as not a strong leader. Whether I should pretend that I was an ineffectual person who wouldn't say boo to a goose. But that wasn't me."

On climate change: "The last data I saw they were saying there's a only a 5 per cent chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in temperature by the end of the century, and we know that's catastrophic. It's a tipping point. This is apocalyptic."

On Trump supporters: "It's not good denouncing people for being racists or xenophobic or whatever, it's totally counterproductive. They are expressing a genuine emotion that life is not as good as it was."

On what's changed for Jacinda Ardern: "Jacinda is a new-generation leader, and she's taking on issues which were quite hard for me to take on, going back close to 20 years now. It's like generation 0 or X or whatever it is, is now stepping up. I'm quite optimistic that this could be a very important moment for New Zealand."

On Māori/Pākehā relations: "[Taika Waititi's] comments are far too tough. I think we're a society in transition. Things have changed immeasurably and changed for the better."

On making speeches: "I've found over the years that not everyone gets humour. So humour is a little bit risky."

WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW HERE

Women Equality Power, by Helen Clark (Allen & Unwin), is on sale from tomorrow.

WOMEN, EQUALITY, POWER: Selected speeches from a life of leadership Helen Clark.
WOMEN, EQUALITY, POWER: Selected speeches from a life of leadership Helen Clark.