Shock, tears, as Clark quits

Prime Minister Helen Clark hugs her mother, Margaret, after conceding defeat at the Labour Party...
Prime Minister Helen Clark hugs her mother, Margaret, after conceding defeat at the Labour Party supporters' venue at the Dalmatian Cultural Centre in Auckland on Saturday night. Photo by Getty Images.
The tears of a young Bangladeshi taxi driver spoke volumes for the depth of feeling about the decision of Helen Clark to step down as leader of the Labour Party as soon as the election results made it clear she would no longer be prime minister of New Zealand.

The driver, Faiz (29), told the Otago Daily Times during a 30-minute ride how much Miss Clark had done to help his community, especially around immigration and work issues.

The Bangladeshi community would be mourning her resignation.

As the tears flowed during the ride, Faiz wondered how a National government would treat families like his own as they struggled to live and work in a new country.

There was genuine shock at the announcement by Miss Clark during her concessionary speech.

"It's over and out for me," Miss Clark told her supporters at an election night function.

With many people in tears, Miss Clark stood with her family and congratulated National Party leader John Key, saying responsibility for the defeat was hers.

She later told reporters that in politics "you have to take the highs with the lows".

"They have been nine incredible years.

''I am proud of what we have achieved," Miss Clark said.

It had always been her intention to stand down immediately if she lost, she said.

A new leader would be elected before Christmas and Miss Clark said she would stay in Parliament as MP for Mt Albert.

She pledged to support whoever replaced her.

She accepted responsibility for the result, but added that New Zealanders were fortunate to live in a democracy where people had the right to choose.

Their choice on Saturday had not been as Labour had wanted.

It was the 10th time she had stood successfully as the Mt Albert candidate for Labour and the fifth time she had led Labour at an election, winning three elections.

"But it is obvious that tonight is not one of those nights.

''Tonight is one for the winners to savour."

Miss Clark said she had decided at an early age that she would seek to serve the people of New Zealand through membership of the New Zealand Labour Party.

She chose Labour as it represented her values of fairness, opportunity and success.

It became her job in 1993 to lead Labour back to "election respectability" and back to government.

In the nine years she had been prime minister, the party had achieved "incredible things" for New Zealand.

They included economic growth, high employment, advances in health and education and support for the young and old.

Labour had been inclusive of all Kiwis, regardless of race, religion, gender and orientation.

"Where to from here?

"The New Zealand Labour Party is 92 years old.

''It's not going away.

With 43 or 44 MPs, it is a little smaller than the current 49, but this is a time for rebuilding.

We have a dozen new MPs who all will be working hard.

"I just hope all we worked for and put in place in the last nine years doesn't go up in flames in a right-wing bonfire."

Asked what had gone wrong with the campaign, Miss Clark said she was not going to conduct any immediate postmortems.

"There is always a certain time for change . . . and that took us out with the tide.

''I look forward to Labour making a strong comeback."

It would be difficult to govern in the coming years because of economic conditions, she said.

Miss Clark was nearly toppled from the leadership of the party in 1996, but she stared down the challengers and they never returned.

Having been party to a series of leadership coups, not the least ousting former prime ministers Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore, Miss Clark would have known her time as leader was limited after such a decisive defeat.

However, with no immediate challenger except perhaps Phil Goff, Miss Clark could have lasted longer than most.

However, she took the expedient decision to go immediately.

When Labour took power in 1999, people started referring to the administration as "Helengrad" or "The sisterhood" as women started appearing in powerful positions.

She had a fiercely independent streak, shown as she broke ranks with Australia, Britain and the United States on the war in Iraq by refusing to send troops.

Her claim during the election campaign that National Party leader John Key's policies would have seen New Zealanders coming home from Iraq in body bags was a sign of the hardness she could adopt when pushed.

First elected to Parliament in 1981, she rose quickly through the ranks to become deputy prime minister in 1989 as the Labour government started falling apart over controversial economic reforms introduced mainly by Sir Roger Douglas (70), who returns to Parliament as an Act New Zealand MP.

Miss Clark presided over a flurry of economic and social change as her government raised taxes and the minimum wage, scrapped the Employment Contracts Act and interest on student loans and tried to continue to lift standards for Maori.

The Working for Families policies were popular with middle income New Zealanders with children, but they introduced a "them and us" situation for many.

It turned out that people on incomes of more than $90,000 could qualify for government help, based on how many children they had.

There was talk that Labour felt it could spend taxpayers' money better than taxpayers by deciding who should get help and who missed out.

Miss Clark was also haunted by a series of "gates", with Doonegate and paintergate hurting her image.

But she showed she could take hard decisions.

During her first term, Police Commissioner Peter Doone, TVNZ chairwoman Rosanne Meo, Timberlands executive Kit Richards, Work and Income head Christine Rankin and NZ Post chairman Ross Armstrong went in quick succession.

Cabinet ministers Dover Samuels and Ruth Dyson were sacked in 2000, followed by Phillida Bunkle and Marian Hobbs in 2001.

Ms Dyson and Ms Hobbs made it back to the Cabinet, as did Lianne Dalziel who was sacked for lying to Miss Clark.

Miss Clark was not helped by the actions of those around her, especially with Labour hard man Trevor Mallard deciding in a rash moment to punch National's Tau Henare. Other MPs made silly mistakes, like West Coast-Tasman MP Damian O'Connor getting the fares paid by sponsorship for a parliamentary rugby team.

National had long recognised that Miss Clark was Labour's strongest weapon in an election and systematically targeted her in campaigns.

Labour's attitude on the foreshore and seabed legislation saw the resignation of minister Tariana Turia, who then went on to help form the Maori Party.

Maori voters stayed loyal to Labour with the party vote but this election, five of the seven Maori electorates are in the hands of the Maori Party.

The issue around Crown ownership of the area around the seashore resulted in 15,000 protesters marching on Parliament.

Miss Clark refused to meet the marchers, branding them "haters and wreckers".

Shrek, the celebrity sheep from Central Otago, was better company, she said.

From 2005, things were tough for Miss Clark.

While she skilfully held a government together, with the help of United Future MPs (now switched to National) and New Zealand First with some support from the Greens, she became surrounded by a series of minor scandals including bullying accusations against David Benson-Pope, being revealed as a source in newspaper articles about Mr Doone, and former Labour MP John Tamihere blurting out in an Investigate magazine article that she was a "control freak" as he sounded off about his once caucus and cabinet colleagues.

This year, it appeared as though Miss Clark had forced Finance Minister Michael Cullen to introduce tax cuts, in a year when a Labour-led administration could least afford them.

National had campaigned for two elections on tax cuts and voters were anxious to see more money in their pockets as the economy took a nosedive.

Dr Cullen had previously sworn against cutting taxes, but introduced them one month out from the election campaign in an attempt to shore up support of middle-income New Zealand.

It was too little, too late.

Miss Clark will be looking for a job overseas, probably following in the footsteps of Mike Moore, who had a successful career with the World Trade Organisation.

Mr Key acknowledged Miss Clark had made the small voice of New Zealand a major player on the international stage.

It is not out of the realms of possibility that in a year or 18 months, an overseas posting for Miss Clark is approved by Mr Key.

She set the precedent in some ways by employing former National prime minister Jim Bolger as chairman of New Zealand Post, Kiwibank and now Kiwirail.

National will, in its first 100 days in office, set off to change several areas of Labour policy with which it totally disagrees.

That includes the emissions trading legislation and the Resource Management Act.

Unwinding social legislation overseen by Miss Clark will be a harder option for National and it may take the easier path of leaving it basically untouched by adding a few refinements of its own.

The legacy of Miss Clark will remain for at least the next three years of an election cycle.

- Dene MacKenzie.


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