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Transcript: Scoop Interviews PM Helen Clark

Scoop Election Briefing, September 13, 2005
Prime Minister Helen Clark


AUDIO: Election Briefing: Prime Minister Helen Clark
Interview by Alastair Thompson
Transcript by Rosalea Barker
Images by Kevin List


CLICK IMAGE FOR LINKS TO AUDIO

Scoop:
I'm here with the Prime Minister for a Scoop Election Briefing. How was your day?

Clark:
How was my day? Very full. We've got a pretty energetic campaign out there. Very motivated in the last week. A lot of people make up their minds in the last week, and there's a pretty stark choice ahead of them--a choice between a Helen Clark-led Labour Government or a Don Brash-led Government, and people have some big decisions to make.

Scoop:
What sort of impressions have you been getting from around the country?

Clark:
Well, from the point of view of Labour on the ground, the feel is exactly the same as 1999, 2002 because our vote is holding. The question is: What's happening to other people's votes? The Greens seem to have secured their place. They've 5 percent. The right-wing vote has largely collapsed in around National. That's the big difference this time. The last election was rather finely poised between Labour and natural allies, and National and natural allies. The difference was that National collapsed around the 21 percent, giving room for New Zealand First to go up to double figures, ACT to about 6, and United Future to somewhere around 6 as well. So when you put all that together, you had 63 seats for Labour-Progressive-Greens and 57 for National and allies. That was a close election even though it might not have seemed so because of National's huge weakness.

Scoop:
From the perspective at Scoop, this seems to be a very intense campaign. You get the impression there's a lot of public feeling out there as if this is a critical juncture in New Zealand's future. Do you have a few clues as to why that's the case?

Clark:
I think it is a critical juncture because Don Brash represents the last gasp of the Rogernomics Ruthanasia era. He was there up to his elbows in it, continues to support everything that was done, holus bolus. It's clear that he would flick a switch and take us back to the kind of thinking that prevailed at that time. You see it as the policies are rolled out. Market rents for State houses: anyone who's studied the social impact of that knows it was absolutely disastrous. But he brazenly puts it out there as though nothing is wrong.


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You see it with the ACC policy. National eventually got around to opening up the ACC for privatisation. Probably what they now see as a mistake is they let the ACC continue with a corporation to compete for the business, and it was doing rather well, which the insurance companies didn't like. So this time they put the policy out there, in effect implying that there be no public insurer in that area except for the residual claims, and the private insurers will get the whole $2 billion market of levies that presently goes to ACC.

So I think it's a critical election because they want to flick the switch and take us back to the unmitigated neo-liberalism of the past, when we've spent six years trying to reverse out of that cul de sac and take another path. And I think, successfully take another path. If we look at what is happening with child poverty rates dropping off, if we look at economic growth, if we look at the lowest unemployment in the Western world. If we look at so many indicators, New Zealand's on the move and successfully. And that contrasts with some pretty bleak years in the recent past.

Scoop:
Back to the campaign, from a campaign organisational perspective, there's been a lot of talk of dirty tricks on the campaign trail. And the pamphlets have only been a small part of that really. There's the push polling allegations that we've just seen, and then there's overseas political consultants about. It looks like there's a great deal more money spent on this campaign than any campaign in recent history. I also think there's been a lot more message management under way, in terms of control of who gets interviewed and how. Are we seeing a bit of an Americanisation of New Zealand politics?

Clark:
Yes, I believe we are seeing an Americanisation of our politics. I think we're seeing how closely these right-wing parties in the Anglo-Saxon countries, if you like, are networking. Lynton Crosby, big adviser to the Aussie Liberal Party was off in the UK tutoring Michael Howard's Conservative Party. The Exclusive Brethren network across the US, Australia, and New Zealand. We're seeing the sort of techniques, the so-called dogwhistle, the wedge politics, the smear tactics, the very, very big money. There's huge money behind this National Party campaign. Big business, weird cults like Exclusive Brethren, all making this a New Zealand election that's very different from any I've ever known.

Scoop:
Why do you think they care?

Clark:
I think they hate Labour Parties. I think they're bringing the same sort of hate that was brought by the Republicans and their networks against John Kerry and the Democrats. And it is a disturbing trend.

Scoop:
Another aspect of this campaign has been the use of wedge politics by a major political party, the National Party, which is something that we've been more used to seeing from Winston Peters in the past. And perhaps with Winston, we've never really taken them all that seriously. Do you have a view on the use of this sort of political strategy?


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Clark:
The divide-and-rule strategy is not a new one for the National Party. Muldoon practised it to perfection, dividing people into "ins" and "outs"--those he accommodated; those he didn't. Brash has brought his own style to that. He practises very exclusive politics. Of course, when he's asked specifically who's in the mainstream and who isn't, he refuses to say. I think one of the funniest commentaries on that was a cartoon which had the aid in the office taking a phone call and saying, "Excuse me, Dr Brash. There's someone on the phone who wants to know whether she's mainstream or not." And he replies, "Who is it?" And the aid says, "It's your wife from Singapore."

I mean, what is this "mainstream" supposed to mean? The National Party has gay candidates. The National Party has Maori candidates. The National Party has an Asian candidate. Excuse me? Who is it that's not mainstream? Or is this just totally dishonest dogwhistle politics to try and divide people against each other?

Scoop:
Peter Dunne came out today with a call for the National Party to reconsider its approach to the Maori seats. Do you have a message for the National Party Leader on that subject?

Clark:
I've been saying ever since Dr Brash floated his policy of abolishing the Maori seats, that I believed it would cause grave disharmony in New Zealand if a Parliament made up largely of people who are not Maori took that choice--which is presently enshrined in law--away from Maori. I think it would be seen as a very vicious act against Maoridom. After all, these seats go back to the mid-nineteenth century. They have a long history. And to just get rid of them against Maori opinion, I think, would be very damaging.

Scoop:
When he came up with his second speech, he talked about the soufflé won't rise twice, or he didn't expect it to rise twice, and there was some debate about whether it did, partly because the polls are so--

Clark:
Messy.

Scoop:
--messy. I got the impression at that time that perhaps the Labour Party was a little reluctant to make the case for making race relations much of an issue in the election.

Clark:
I don't think it's good for race relations for it to be a central issue in the election. Fundamentally, New Zealanders are fair-minded. You had the speech, Orewa-1, and it worked its way through the system. But to have race relations now at the centre of the campaign, I think would be quite damaging to New Zealand. And I don't actually think he got the traction on that second speech that he wanted.

Scoop:
This is now the fourth MMP election, all of which you've participated in as--

Clark:
Been Leader of the Labour Party in.

Scoop:
--Leader of the Labour Party. Do you think the majority of political parties are now a bit more familiar now with how the system works?

Clark:
I think most are, but the National Party clearly has the strategy of trying to win an outright majority. What we discovered last time was, if there was any prospect of that, the electorate reacted quite adversely because it provoked memories of governments having unrestrained power under the first-past-the-post era. So, I think it's a flawed strategy to go for an outright majority. That's why we've been very clear from the beginning that we seek to govern in concert with others, and we stated our preferences for who we would work with, which are those parties we've been able to work with on a cooperative and constructive basis for the past three years.


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The National Party, on the other hand, has started systematically trying to demolish anyone who might give it a hand-up in government. The prospect now of being able to have any sort of stable NZ First-National Government after an extremely bitter campaign in Tauranga would have to be somewhat remote. So that invokes memories of the disaster of the Shipley-Peters combination back in the late '90s, and Dr Brash is Jenny Shipley with bells on when it comes to being far right.

Scoop:
In relation to Winston Peters, he seems to be trying to turn the election now into a two-horse race, at the end of which he gets to crown the winner. The way this stance can be seen is as pushing Green voters to vote for Labour, which is a sort of unusual consequence of his position. Do you think this is a positive or negative development?

Clark:
I think there's two points there. His trying to position himself as the kingmaker of the two /// has played very, very badly for him, and his polling started to fall off after that. Secondly, there is a bit of interplay between the Labour and Green vote. If people think that Labour might not be the largest party, they tend to come back in behind Labour. Conversely, they don't want to come so much in behind they put Greens under the threshold. So there's certainly some interaction with voters there, sort of thinking through the strategic consequences.

Scoop:
It puts them in a very difficult position.

Clark:
It does. It does. And fundamentally, it's important to Labour that the Greens are on 5 percent, because they are a natural partner to work with in government.

Scoop:
Do you think that Winston was serious about just backing the party with the most votes, regardless?

Clark:
I think their statements have been quite ambiguous. He seems to have backed off any idea of being part of the government. But it's hard to see how--with this Tauranga campaign having been so bitter--that he could sustain a Brash-led government.

Scoop:
Looking away from the campaign for a moment, assuming you are elected, what besides the policy announcements--which are in the manifesto--will you be treating as a priority in the coming term?

Clark:
I think one of the disappointments of an election campaign like this is that it's very difficult to get up the big issues about the future of New Zealand--like the direction the economy's taken. We've had a very strategic approach to the economy. How does the Government add value to economic development and modernisation? I believe we've done a tremendous amount to sort of cajole, encourage, work alongside regions, industries, businesses, to push more sophistication in production of goods and services, more skills, more productivity, more R&D, more innovation, smarter branding, more adventurous marketing looking offshore.

And that's made a huge difference to the NZ economy. We're in a position at the moment where previously the economy would have wilted with this level of exchange rate. But the New Zealand economy has continued to do quite well, and I think it's because rather more of it has managed to position at a level of the international market where we can command a price rather than just having to take it.

Scoop:
So you're basically saying we've got a very resilient economy now?

Clark:
I'm saying that there's more resilience in the economy, more strength. Now, you've always got to build on that, and if you ever stand still, then others up and overtake you. So it has to be a continual process of transformation. That's the strategic approach that we've brought.


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Scoop:
Are there other things, though, that you'd like to see that you haven't been able to deal with, thus far in the six years that you've been in government?

Clark:
As I say, your work is never done. So it's never done on the economy. You just have to keep innovating and adapting the policies. In the health area, we've had to overcome years of underinvestment, and we've invested a lot of money. I think in the next term, we'll be looking for more productivity improvements out the other end. But when you're running to catch up--whether it's in nurses' salaries or capital investment--then your time is very much focused on increasing volume and putting the money in to do that. I think we should now look to productivity improvements as well.

Obviously, the next term there'll be a very big focus on better value for money in the tertiary spend because there's some things got away there and shouldn't have. We're working very rapidly to address that. The foreign policy and trade agenda is pretty big, too. Huge developments with the East Asian Summit and the sort of relationships that we're building--and Australia's also building--with East Asia as the most dynamic region in the world today. So plenty of projects for the third term.

Scoop:
One area that's sort of in some ways might have been left behind a bit in the last six years, is social work and Child, Youth and Family. I know that some monies have been put into it, but we clearly still have a lot of problems with child poverty and child abuse. Is that something that you would see getting more attention?

Clark:
First, /// child poverty. The full implementation of Working Families by 1 April, 2007--

Scoop:
I'm caring more about the ambulance, as opposed to the--

Clark:
The full implementation drops child poverty by 30 percent, and that will put the rate of child poverty at around the same level as the Netherlands, which people would think was a pretty amazing achievement. And lower than the EU average for child poverty. So that's a positive.

On the Child, Youth and Family, child abuse and neglect side, yes, that *is* an issue. It *is* an issue. And it's not an easily solved issue. I think that the falling of so many families off the cliff has been influenced by what happened to New Zealand in the bad years. When you drive people over a cliff and off the edge, and drive the development of an underclass--as happened--you will see the results of that. And we have. Now, Child, Youth and Family struggled with that. It struggled with leadership. It struggled with resourcing.


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Scoop:
They're still struggling, really.

Clark:
Well, what we can show is that the number of unallocated cases is down from 4,592 in May last year, to 993 on 1 July this year. So there's been a huge campaign within CYF to get that down.

Scoop:
You probably know a few people who have dealt with Children, Young Persons and their Family Service and certainly from my anecdotal experience, they don't seem to really be in a position to help people in their difficulties. It's more sort of wrap-em-up bandaging and hopefully you'll get better of your own accord.

Clark:
I think CYF is positioned very much towards the bottom of the cliff, and often right at the bottom of the cliff. I think the further up the cliff--and hopefully the top of the cliff--has to come through the Strengthening Families-type initiatives. And I think a lot has been done in that area, but we are overcoming the impacts of a generation or two having been pretty battered. We experience the impact of that in regions where there've been very high unemployment, and where getting people back to work was actually quite a major rehab job, because there were many people who had simply become--with second- or third-generation unemployment--too alcoholic, drug-dependent, overweight and just plain sick to work. Now, if you then say, "Well, what kind of families come from that?", it isn't good. I think we've got long-term repair work to do there, none of which is helped by a return to the excesses of neo-liberalism.

Scoop:
One of the big challenges ahead is the issue of Peak Oil, that's come up. For the first time, in this election campaign, so far as I'm aware. Is this one of the big challenges for New Zealand?

Clark:
Yeah. Big, big challenges to all Western economies and all fast-developing emerging economies like China and India. And, of course, the pressure that they put on the international market is one of the reasons for the incredible prices of oil at the moment. I mean, we've had the triple whammy: you've got the huge instability in the Middle East, exacerbated by the war in Iraq, and you've got the instability in Venezuela; you've got the growth of the mega-population economies like China and India, and also the renewed growth in the States has put pressure on oil prices as well; and then you had Hurricane Katrina come along and affect the refining capacity in the States. Put the three together--up go the prices. Now, the US refining capacity, obviously, is increasing as we speak, and that's enabled prices to come off peak. But longer-term, everyone knows we're beyond the cheap oil era. Oil will be dear.

Scoop:
The Ministry of Economic Development didn't seem to be aware of that a year or so ago.


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Clark:
No, well--if they're not aware now, there's a radical problem. That's why we've been talking about how can New Zealand be at the forefront of environmental technologies. How can we adapt more biofuels? How fast can the technology for the hybrid and less oil-dependent cars be here? What policy framework do we need to deal with this?

Scoop:
So you're looking forward to dealing with that?

Clark:
I always love to deal with the challenges, and it's a big one. Not just for us.

Scoop:
Why is it important that New Zealand lead the regionalisation of the Pacific Plan, and what can be expected out of that?

Clark:
In the 21st century, small, vulnerable nations stand to fall further and further behind if they're not somehow linked and holding hands together, to work out smart strategies for economic and social development. Small island economies with growing tourism stand to be radically affected by HIV/Aids if there aren't the smart strategies. They stand to lose the best and brightest to countries like New Zealand in the first instance, and also Australia. They stand to be further marginalised, and that's the urgency we've seen for moving on the Pacific Plan. To see how we can work more cooperatively to stop our neighbours in the Pacific simply failing in every sense--economically, in health terms, socially--and not being viable.

Scoop:
On the security issue, Papua New Guinea courts recently ruled that immunity for the peacekeepers and the police force that were there from the Australians would be removed, and Australia then pulled out the peacekeepers. MFAT's been in talks with its Australian counterpart to ascertain what this means for New Zealand. What can we distilled from that, do you think, as far as we're concerned?

Clark:
Firstly, we tend not to put in-line positions into other countries. I think if you're putting in-line positions in, it's very important to be invited, and to establish the terms for that. We do have in-line positions in Nuie at Nuie's request, but more generally, our police positions are support-and-train positions, or mentor-and-adviser positions.

Scoop:
Rather than /// investigation.

Clark:
Yes. "In-line" in the Australian sense in PNG was going in and actually doing the duties of the police force. Of course, to some extent, that's been the case in the Solomons, but then the Solomons Government wanted that kind of support. But if you're going to provide in-line support, then it's very important that you be invited and that there be a clear understanding about the conditions.

Scoop:
Looking back over the past six years, what are you most pleased about having achieved?


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Clark:
Halving unemployment. I think that's been a huge achievement, and I don't think anybody thought it was possible. Except us. I remember doing an interview--I think it was a debate with Jenny Shipley which Al Morrison moderated--and I was asked what difference I thought a Labour Government could make to unemployment. And I said, I believe that over time we could it down well below its 6 percent-plus it hovered around. And when asked what level I thought we'd get it down to, I said I thought that somewhere between 3 and 4 percent was generally regarded as the clearance level for unemployment in Western economies and that's where we should aim. I was scoffed at. People said, "How ridiculous! You'll never achieve that." Well, we have achieved it, and I think that's been a fantastic achievement.

Scoop:
What will you be doing in the final days of the campaign? Michael Cullen said that he's only got two sleeves and he's already pulled out both his ///

Clark:
I don't think the last week is a time for major new policy announcements. We are still issuing policies, but they don't involve major spending. I think it's too late for that. I think the cynical move on the petrol levy earlier this week is just something that a responsible party can't credibly do. It looks desperate.

Our campaign this week is really about driving home key messages. That if you want a Helen Clark-led government, you need to vote for it, and not vote for parties which aren't committed to that outcome. If you vote for parties that are committed to sitting on the fence, then you can wake up with an awful hangover the day after the election, and find you've got a government you didn't want at all. So we're moving across all age groups, and across the society, in the last few days, and campaigning very energetically.

Scoop:
This election is obviously coming down to the wire. Are you just a little bit nervous about what might happen in the next four days?

Clark:
You have to put your fate in the hands of New Zealanders. You have to say the voters will make the decision that they believe is best for New Zealand, and we can only got out there and put our best foot forward, talk about what we believe we've achieved and how we can build on that. In the end, people have the right to choose. And they will.

Scoop:
Thank you Helen Clark.

Clark:
Thank you.


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ENDS

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