From ‘Ruthanasia’ to ‘dead fish’ – I give you Helen Clark

How will Helen Clark be remembered?  How is New Zealand different in 2008, after nine years of Labour-led governments, to the country she inherited in 1999?

Often ex-Prime Ministers eventually slip into fond places in New Zealander’s memories, even if their reign was controversial.  They end up fronting international organisations, chairing commissions or fronting diplomatic postings – and often, they make it to honours lists.

Helen Clark became Prime Minister in 1999, following 15 years of a cross-party consensus that neo-liberal laissez-faire policies were the most effective way to run the New Zealand economy.

The 1990-1999 National governments led by Jim Bolger and then Jenny Shipley had originally sought power promising a “decent society” as an antidote to “Rogernomics”, the unpopular economic policies pursued by the previous Labour government.

But the 1991 “mother of all budgets” released by Ruth Richardson dispelled these promises by continuing reductions in state spending, and subsequent policies continued where “Rogernomics” had left off – and were quickly dubbed “Ruthanasia” by critics.

Ms Richardson extended market reforms to social services by cutting benefits across the board and introducing market rentals to state house tenants.

Market forces and user pays were introduced to hospitals and tertiary education, and the selling of state assets was continued as the Bank of New Zealand and New Zealand Rail were sold. 

Contact Energy became the first State-owned enterprise in the energy arena to be floated on the stock exchange, but it was perhaps in labour relations that Jim Bolger’s National made the largest impact.

The 1993 Employment Contracts Act demolished the post-war industrial relations framework in New Zealand, removing compulsory union membership and allowing employees to form individual employment contracts with their employers.  The power of collective bargaining and unions were gutted, and with unemployment high, market forces drove down real wages, particularly in lower income professions.

The National Minister for Treaty Negotiations, Sir Doug Graham, was seen as particularly effective and significant settlements were made, notably with Ngai Tahu and Tainui, though the $1billion cap on Treaty settlements was roundly rejected by iwi.

The 1993 Human Rights Act brought anti-discriminatory legislation to one home, and outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexuality for the first time.  It was passed despite the high profile resistance from some National MPs, led by Minister of Police John Banks.

In 1996 the first Mixed Member Proportional representation election took place, and though National continued to govern, they required New Zealand First’s 17 MPs.  This term was fractious, as many New Zealand First MPs had entered parliament campaigning against National so were reluctant to endorse National policies. 

By 1999 the National-led government was limping along with the support of some former New Zealand First MPs while others, including leader Winston Peters, had abandoned the  coalition.

So in 1999 New Zealand was governed strictly according to a neo-liberal economic agenda, with growing rights for minority groups under the Human Rights Act. 

New Zealand was in the process of becoming a much more ethnically diverse society, and while Treaty settlements had been begun in earnest, Maori and Pacific peoples had continued to bear the brunt of many of the neo-liberal policies, facing higher unemployment and more negative health and education outcomes than Pakeha New Zealanders.

MMP was in disarray – largely due to Winston Peter’s New Zealand First party which had campaigned in opposition to National policies, before choosing to govern with them.  National leader Jenny Shipley had been unable to manage these contradictions, and many New Zealanders were sceptical that MMP could deliver stable government.

The 1999 election was won by Labour in coalition with the left-wing Alliance, and support from the new Green Party.  The three parties combined won half the popular vote and 2/3 of the electorate seats, and had campaigned on ending the neo-liberal consensus. 

The flagship policy of the Labour Party, and the centre-point of Helen Clark’s victory speech on election night, was the promise of  “Closing the Gaps” – between Maori and Pacific peoples and the rest of New Zealand. 

The policy was implemented almost immediately, releasing funding to iwi organisations with the aim of improving the lot of Maori.  Accused of bringing a racial face to poverty, “Closing the Gaps” attracted widespread criticism from opponents for favouring Maori over non-Maori. 

“Race-based” funding was notably condemned by then National leader Don Brash in an influential speech in Orewa in 2004 – and while not abandoned by Labour, was pragmatically and ruthlessly disowned by Helen Clark in an attempt to ensure her government were not seen as “soft on Maori”.

While “Closing the Gaps” was welcomed by Maori, the early years of Helen Clark’s government did not noticeably advance Treaty settlement processes, and it was not until Finance Minister and former historian Michael Cullen took over the role of negotiating for the Crown in 2007 that significant settlements were reached.

But the most controversial – and perhaps costly in electoral terms – issue in terms of relationship with Maori was the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004.  Rather than allowing due legal process in terms of iwi customary law, Labour legislated to ensure ownership remained with the Crown.

The split was immediate, with former Labour MP Tariana Turia leaving to form the Maori Party.  Two elections later, and the loss to Labour of five Maori seats as well as a percentage of the party vote should not be underestimated – this was a critical point for Helen Clark, and one in which, again, she chose to side with “mainstream” Pakeha opinion.

By 2002, the Alliance had imploded due to internal divisions, but over the next six years Helen Clark showed an adeptness at managing MMP by building stable government through coalitions or confidence and supply agreements with the Progressive, United Future, Green and New Zealand First parties.

While free-trade agreements continued to be sought and won by Labour, there were also complete turnarounds of 1990s policies.  Economically, Labour repealed the Employment Contracts Act, encouraging collective bargaining and legislating to ensure this could only be done by unions, though stopping short of reintroducing compulsory union membership.  They also raised the minimum wage six times.

Paid parental leave of fourteen weeks was introduced, state housing rents lowered, and a New Zealand superannuation fund set up by Michael Cullen.  Student loans became interest-free for students while studying, and Accident Compensation Corporation, Air New Zealand and New Zealand Rail were re-nationalised.

Kiwibank and Kiwisaver became flagships – as with the above policies, both were a repudiation of neo-liberal ideas of market forces being the most effective proponents of economic and social growth and well-being.

The “Working for Families” package targeted tax credits to those with children to those most in need – but was not eligible to those on benefits – attracting criticism from those on the left and the right.

Helen Clark continued New Zealand’s journey away from the “mother country” by overseeing the establishment of the New Zealand honours system to replace Queen’s honours.  The British-based Privy Council was also removed as last chance for appeal, and the Supreme Court of New Zealand established.

It was the social reforms of Helen Clark’s governments which arguably attracted most controversy, despite some of these reforms being logical extensions of National’s Human Rights Act.

Rights for same-sex couples were extended in the Property (Relationships) Act, which extended property division law into de facto couples, and the Civil Union Act 2004 allowed de facto couples, including same-sex couples, to have their relationships – and the rights that stem from this – formally recognised in a parallel to marriage. 

The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 decriminalised prostitution and established frameworks for improving the safety of those working in prostitution. 

But it was an unpopular private members bill, from the Greens Sue Bradford, which became most strongly associated with Helen Clark as a perceived “nanny-stater”.  While earlier criticisms of her economic reforms as interfering in people’s rights to run their own life were largely shrugged-off, the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, dubbed the “Anti-Smacking Bill” by opponents and the media, was widely disliked.

Although both National and Labour voted to repeal Section 59 and its defence of “reasonable force” for hitting children, Helen Clark was blamed by many for passing a bill which was seen as criminalising ordinary parents seeking to discipline their children.

The last months of Helen Clark’s leadership were mired in controversy over Winston Peters and New Zealand First’s finances, unhappiness with an Electoral Finance Act which is so poorly written the Electoral Commission struggles to interpret it, and drafting and redrafting of an Emissions Trading Bill which was eventually passed. 

The fact that the 2008 election had to be fought on Miss Clark’s terms has not gone unnoticed.  The National Party have campaigned and won an election by promising not to sell state assets, not to dismantle “Kiwissaver” or “Working for Families”, and by reaching out to Maori through courting the Maori Party.

This National Party also has higher numbers of female MPs and MPs from minority ethnic groups.  It looks, and sounds, almost nothing like the National Party Helen Clark defeated in 1999.

And perhaps that is the most significant criterion on which to judge Helen Clark.  As Prime Minister she has not only shown MMP can produce stable government, she and her party have shifted consensus politics in New Zealand from strictly neo-liberal to a mixture of free-trade neo-liberalism and social democratic ideals. 

John Key, in swallowing “dead fish” and imitating Helen Clark’s policies, may well be indulging in the sincerest form of flattery – whether he realises it or not.


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