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Q+A interview with former PM Helen Clark: 08.11.09

Sunday 8th November 2009

The Q+A interview with former Prime Minister Helen Clark live from New York this morning is transcribed below.

The full length video interviews and panel discussions from the last episode of Q+A for 2009 can be seen on tvnz.co.nz at, http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news

Q+A is scheduled to return to TV ONE on Sunday mornings in early 2010.


PAUL Without further ado we'll go straight to former Prime Minister Helen Clark in New York City, welcome to Q+A.

HELEN Thanks Paul.

PAUL How do you enjoy the job?

HELEN CLARK – UN Development Programme Head
Well I'm actually enjoying it a great deal. I travel a lot, I've got a large organisation to lead, get involved in many many interesting issues. I came into politics initially because of a passion for international affairs, and I guess sitting across the road from the United Nations building I'm right in the centre of it.

PAUL Do you miss being Prime Minister, or is this job as absorbing?

HELEN You know it seems almost as long ago as the first day I started university in 1968, so I'd like to think I've got a capacity to close the door on one thing and open the door on the next one and get fully involved in that, and I do tend to get fully involved in whatever I'm doing, so if you ask me do I miss it, not at all, I've got a new reality and I'm enjoying it.

PAUL Do you keep an eye on things back home?

HELEN Well not particularly closely, I could probably tell you more about what's happening in the United States Congress today than I could about what's happening in New Zealand. So of course I check out the website from time to time but I wouldn’t say I grieve if I can't.

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PAUL Talk about a typical week because I've made contact with you several times both in terms of the radio programme and this programme of course to find out your availability, and you might be in Lagos one day, the next thing you're in Dakar, the next thing you're in Pittsburgh, the amount of travelling you seem to do is ferocious. Can you describe a typical week?

HELEN Well a typical week of travel might be like the one that’s coming up tomorrow when I'm going to go across to London, spend a night there, I've got appointments in London during the day and then we relocate to Madrid on Monday evening. I'll have two nights in Madrid and the away early the next morning to Rome and then the following late afternoon on the Thursday I'll go across to Lisbon for appointments there, and then head back to New York by late Friday night. So when I travel officially, and in this case it's going to donor countries, because all the five and a half billion dollars which UNDP has each year is raised by entirely voluntary contributions – when I go to donor countries I really keep on the move, a day here, a day and a half there, half a day here.

PAUL I mean that is a massive and political place the United Nations, and probably very Machiavellian at times as well –what were the challenges of finding out how the UN works?

HELEN Well I've been around a while, I'd had contact with the UN in previous capacities, not only as Prime Minister but also going back a long time to when I was involved with one of the parliamentary organisations that operated out of New York, and I'd come up here and be part of conferences, so it wasn’t a great adaptation to come here, I had a pretty fair idea about the way the place worked, but I consider myself to be very very privileged to be in a lot of meetings with the Secretary General, with other senior staff around the place, take part in important discussions about where the climate talks might be going, what might be happening in particular countries where the UN's very very involved, so I find that personally incredibly interesting.

PAUL Well your work is in the poorest countries, much of your work is in Africa, just briefly if you could former Prime Minister, what kind of projects would you administer or instigate.

HELEN Well take a country like Liberia which was the very first one I went to in this new position, Liberia had a civil war which went for the best part of two decades, that leaves a tremendous amount of destruction in its wake and the destruction isn't only of infrastructure, it's of people, of communities, of livelihoods, so one of the first things our organisation gets involved in there is demobilising and disarming and bringing back into communities people who've been former fighters, and some of those have been children, they’ve been child soldiers, they're now adolescents, they’ve known only a life where they’ve done some pretty terrible things, so there's a lot of rebuilding of people's lives and reintegration back into the community that has to happen in those circumstances.

PAUL And of course that is just one country and you’ve got what I understand nine billion New Zealand to spend. How much of a dent in world poverty, world degradation such as you’ve just been describing can you do with that nine billion?

HELEN Well it calculates at around five and a half billion US a year, so if you spread that across the roughly six billion people in developing countries it would be about a dollar a head, so clearly it would have no impact, so you’ve got to be quite strategic, we're not the World Bank, you know we're not recapitalising countries' balance sheets or hundreds of millions of dollars for bit infrastructure projects. We tend to work on initiatives with governments to help them get their policy right, their strategies right, to help improve their institutions, it might be their national human rights institution, it might be the functioning of their parliament, it might be projects which are helping them with their disaster risk management, and with climate change, that’s obviously pretty topical right now. In to the future we certainly will have a lot of work to help developing countries with these low carbon footprint growth strategies, because business as usual with the fossil fuel of course is not something that the world needs for the future. So there's a range of areas we work in trying to be catalytic if you like, strategic, helping governments figure out what the best policy is and then build the capacity to actually deliver it.

PAUL And do governments like to help you, some of the governments, or do they tend to undermine and even hijack what you're doing?

HELEN Basically governments like to have us there, there's almost no developing country on earth that does not want the United Nations and the United Nations brand there. I've just come back from three days in San Diego and Chile, and Chile as we know from New Zealand is a very high middle income developing country which is just about to go into the OECD if the vote for it goes right next month in Paris, but in Chile we have a position there, we're very much valued, we work on policy issues, we support them to do all sorts of things. They're for example calling on us for some assistance on how they might work with indigenous people, they look to New Zealand for some insights into that as well. So whether it's a very high income developing country or a very low income developing country they do want UNDP there.

PAUL You’ve said that some 40% of all development investment is vulnerable to climate change, so let's move on to climate change. We had Chris Patten, or Lord Patten as he is now, on the programme a few weeks back, he said Copenhagen is going to be the most important international conference for a hundred years, probably since Versailles, and yet we read EU diplomats over the weekend telling the Guardian that any hopes of an agreement at Copenhagen are a goner, they're just a goner, the best thing that we can hope for is that some 40 or 50 world leaders will get together. Is this catastrophic?

HELEN Well it would be catastrophic if the conference went badly wrong. I don’t think it need go badly wrong and what the diplomatic effort's getting into now is to get as strong a political declaration from the conference as possible. It's not going to be a conference that produces a signed and sealed finished treaty on climate change, it just hasn’t made enough progress for that, but if it can get a strong enough political agreement then hopefully some time in the next year the final details on a treaty could be negotiated.

PAUL Yes political agreement to do something possible next year. Yes 40 leaders I understand going to Copenhagen, the New Zealand Prime Minister is not – should he?

HELEN Well that’s a matter for him to assess. I know the European leaders across the EU, that’s the 27 or so do intend to go, but it's very close to home for them. A number of leaders from developing countries will go, all eyes will be on whether President Obama goes, but I guess a lot of leaders will be looking and saying well how far is the conference going to get, do I want to be there. All I can say is it does help to have leaders go and crunch through the issues, but we're not at the stage where every last i is going to dotted and t crossed.

PAUL The United Nations is quite adamant of course about what it wants to see in terms of the reduction of carbon emissions, the United Nations wants to see an across the board reduction from every country of 40% of carbon emissions, and they say without that we're going to see a two degree temperature rise around the world putting 60 million coastal people under water. Now New Zealand has opted this year to tone down its emissions to 15 to 20%, what is your attitude to that, is that enough?

HELEN Well if we work back form 2050 and trying to stop world temperatures rising more than two degrees by that time, then we look then you look at what the various countries have to do, and I know that at this point it's considered that the developed countries and New Zealand is part of that group, have not made big enough commitments. In order to get an agreement there may have to be some rethinking in the capitals of developed countries. Developed countries want a deal because we're affected by an erratic and fast change in climate as well, particularly in a country like New Zealand where our agricultural, horticultural viticultural industries are very dependent on equable climate, that’s what we've based and grown our prosperity on.

PAUL I have to leave it there – is the job frustrating, just very quickly?

HELEN No, no, it's not frustrating. You know of course there's days like in my previous life where not everything would turn out exactly as you want it to, but that’s life, it's an incredible privilege to have the position, I'm enjoying it, and really looking forward to the years ahead.

PAUL Helen Clark thank you very much for your time from New York City, the former President from the Labour Party is on the programme this morning, I'm sure he sends you his greetings.


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