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Reflections: The Legacy Of 'Helen Holyoake'

The Legacy Of Helen Holyoake

By Simon Arcus

As the dust settles on the New Zealand election Helen Clark has left the Labour Party that rarest of political commodities – a bloodless exit at the top. This gives the party a clean slate, a new leader and an opportunity to plan for the future unencumbered by that uncomfortable feeling of impropriety in dislodging a long serving PM from her role. But leaving the way she did Helen also gave Labour something of inestimably more valuable.

She left the legacy of an ‘era’ in New Zealand. She left nine distinct years of economic prosperity, leadership through crisis and generally level headed Government with a Labour coalition at the helm. Only one other New Zealand Prime Minister has left a comparable legacy – Keith Holyoake. And at the next election an electorate hurting from painful recession and economic upheaval may be nostalgic for the memory of times when Helen was PM. Labour will be hoping Helen - and by extension her party - might just come to symbolise better times in the minds of voters.

It occurred to me in late October why I admired Helen, when the unendingly ‘interim’ Fijian Prime Minster Bainimarama accused her of wanting to be ‘Queen of the Pacific’. The comment was as ill founded as Bainimarama’s Fijian democracy. Despite nine long years of opportunity for exponential growth in hubris our former PM was absolutely not a scintilla ‘regal’ by the end of it. At least, not publicly.

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On election night she was pragmatic, down to earth and straightforward. Her no nonsense style was dull compared to former stars like Muldoon or Lange. But with Helen we became comfortable with a leader who preferred holidays tramping to five star hotels and still looked slightly uncomfortable in the glaring lights of the world stage. It was very ‘Kiwi’ really.

Despite Helen’s gracious departure Phil Goff has the unenviable role of post-disaster Party leader. If history is any guide he may be faced with deep desire for change from within and unable to break his inexorable association with the past. Goff, who is clever and experienced, has to try not to join Jim McLay, Mike Moore, Geoff Palmer and Brendan Nelson (in Australia) as leaders who were accidents of political timing quite distinct from their personal ability.

Helen Clark would loathe being viewed comparatively to National’s Keith Holyoake. But one can draw certain parallels. Like Holyoake, Clark was Prime Minster during a (relative) economic golden time where the country was yet to encounter recession and economic contraction. Also like Holyoake, Clark reigned virtually unchallenged and retired retaining deep respect and mana. Moreover, Clark developed a unique style which was undeniably ‘Kiwi’. It was down to earth, self deprecating at times and distinctly unimpressed by the baubles of office. In fact, by comparison to the anachronistically British-style of ‘Kiwi Keith’, Helen Clark (of tramping and skiing fame) made Holyoake look like an absolute British ex-pat.

Clark’s legacy seems assured. Over nine long years virtually no enduring scandals or allegations of corruption or pork barreling that will legitimately be carried with Clark into posterity. Sure there’s a dull scuffle over a painting (dubbed hyperbolically ‘Paintergate’ by a bored media) and her lapse in letting her ministerial vehicle go fast on a country road to see an All Black game. (Let’s face it, with those seats going to waste I venture half the country would have put the pedal down themselves).

So the political wheels turn and John Key has now sworn in the cabinet he will, no doubt, soon be swearing at (metaphorically). Key has a super dubious economy and an electorate with high expectations. But on the face of it he ought to have a better shot at stable governance than Clark.

She sewed together her own disparate coalition with much more flimsy material than the Prime Minister appears to have now. In Key’s case good businessman does not necessarily a savvy politico make, but there’s a very Kiwi sense the country is willing to give Key a ‘fair go’.

Edmund Burke correctly observed; “Those who have been once intoxicated with power…never can willingly abandon it.” I’m sorry Helen ran a negative campaign I can’t help feeling she was out of ideas.

She knew when the game was truly up and certainly saw the writing on the wall for her leadership. But Helen Clark left the zenith of Kiwi politics with an idiosyncratic dignity she came to define - and with an identifiably Kiwi style. I think she knows this too.

Simon Arcus is a lawyer living in Auckland


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