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Q+A: Helen Clark


Ex New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark says she’s received support from a “great stadium of Kiwis” for her bid to be the UN Secretary General, and she wasn’t worried about the Maori Party withdrawing their support for her bid.
“Well, they flip-flopped, didn’t they, so, look, it’s neither here nor there in this contest. You never expect 100% support for anything. I think that the high level of support and interest from Kiwis has been absolutely phenomenal,” she told Q+A’s Corin Dann.
Miss Clark, who is currently administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said she was not going to rate her chances at the moment but conceded it was a “very tough geopolitical contest”.
“Is it time to move from the traditional low diplomatic profile of appointees to someone with a leader profile like myself? These are the issues that the Security Council members are thinking about,” she said.


Q + A
Episode 29
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

GREG Helen Clark is not giving up on her campaign for the UN's top job, despite her poor showing in the secret ballots so far. Ms Clark compared the race to the shoot-out at the OK Corral, the famous gun battle between lawmen and a gang of outlaws in America’s Wild West.
And when Corin met up with her in New York this week, he asked what that meant for her chances.

HELEN Well, look, there’s a pack. There’s a couple of candidates who are doing bit better than others, but then there’s a group that are quite closely bunched. And the issue has been to keep standing and to sustain the level of support, which means that when the coloured ballots come out, where permanent members indicate their vetoes, to still be standing for that time.

CORIN Are the big players, the big veto players, are they going to veto you?

HELEN We don’t know of any hard veto. What we know from previous selections of secretary generals is that the cards are played here and there, sometimes the start of the negotiation or a discussion; sometimes they’re the end game. So a lot is unknown about how this will play out.

CORIN Are you happy with the support that you’ve been getting from the New Zealand government and John Key?

HELEN Total support from the New Zealand government, from the Prime Minister down. Murray McCully has also been extremely active, the whole Foreign Ministry and, of course, the great stadium of Kiwis at home, where there’s been incredible support in so many ways.

CORIN Look, there has been a lot of support from home, but not everybody has supported you. The Maori Party has come out and said that it doesn’t back your candidacy all these years on from that issue of the foreshore and seabed. Is that disappointing for you?

HELEN Well, they flip-flopped, didn’t they, so, look, it’s neither here nor there in this contest. You never expect 100% support for anything. I think that the high level of support and interest from Kiwis has been absolutely phenomenal.

CORIN I just wonder whether you were hurt by that and whether that hurt your chances. I mean, there are obviously a lot of countries with indigenous groups. I mean, they might well vote against you because of that.

HELEN No, I don’t think it registered on the Richter scale here, and, of course, Maori voters are found among the followers of all political parties, not least the one that I used to be in, so they’re prominently associated with myself.

CORIN So where do you put your chances at the moment?

HELEN Look, I’m not even going to go into probabilities. This is a very tough geopolitical contest. There are many factors in it. One should not take anything personally about anything that happens in this contest, because I believe I have widespread respect within the General Assembly. The issue’s going to be is it the time for someone like me from a region of the world which has never had a secretary general but hasn’t ever staked a claim before? Is it time to move from the traditional low diplomatic profile of appointees to someone with a leader profile like myself? These are the issues that the Security Council members are thinking about.

CORIN You yourself have alluded to the fact that maybe the UN doesn’t want a strong, capable leader. Is that hurting your chances that you’re seen as perhaps too much of a reformer?

HELEN Well, the traditional profile is the low-key diplomatic, but I think many people look at the challenges the world is facing; they say the UN actually doesn’t seem to be doing so well on a number of fronts, particularly peace and security. So is it time to bring in someone with leadership skills, with the Rolodex created from years of operating at a top leader level to lead the organisation to work with the member states to be more effective?

CORIN If you look at Syria this week, the UN looks ineffectual. Where is the UN Secretary General on this issue? What can they do? What are they doing?

HELEN Well, I think there probably is more space for the UN in a number of the crises and not just at the point of the crisis or six years into a crisis, as we’re heading for with Syria. It really goes back to the work the UN can do to mobilise support for building more peaceful, more inclusive societies. Most of the problems that have ended up on that Security Council agenda are fundamentally problems of development, of developing the kind of institutions and society which will talk its differences out and not fight them out.

CORIN Here’s the really interesting thing, though – we are entering a phase, aren’t we, where developed countries are seeing a real backlash from middle class, from lower working class who aren’t getting ahead in this age of globalisation. Are we going to see this return to protectionism, anti-migrant sentiment? It’s a real worry, isn’t it?

HELEN I think we need leadership on these issues. Migrants are a source of wealth both to the countries from which they come, because remittances are so important, and to the countries they are coming to. The truth is that many developed countries have demographics which are ageing very very rapidly. They need new people in the workforce. So leaders have to step up and make these points, that migration can be good for both the source and the receiving countries.

CORIN Look at New Zealand. Even the Labour Party in New Zealand is starting to question the numbers around migration and push that issue strongly. It is really starting to take hold in New Zealand.

HELEN Well, we’re a country founded on migration, since the great canoes came down from Polynesia. We were the last significant land mass on Earth to be populated by human beings, but once we started coming, we kept coming across the rich diversity of humankind. So is New Zealand the better for migration? Of course it is. It is the better for having accepted refugees? Of course it is. Would its development have stalled if it hadn’t had migrants? Of course it would. Let’s make the leadership case for this.

CORIN Are you worried that the Labour Party in New Zealand, for example, is starting to raise those issues about migration?

HELEN I’ve no idea what the level is. I’ve no idea what any political party is saying about it.

CORIN But the general message?

HELEN But what I’m saying is that without question migrants have been an asset to New Zealand.

CORIN I mean, the other factor we’ve got, of course, is Donald Trump, Brexit and that sentiment that is rising around the world, that dissatisfaction, a lot of the blame going towards migrants. How do you cope with that?

HELEN Again, I think you have to come back to the facts, that migrants come to fill places in the workforce where often there isn’t the local labour supply. In New Zealand the migrant system has long been skewed towards points around skills and other factors, so it’s been a calibrated system. In this country, a lot of the very poorly paid service jobs are done by migrants. I remember having a conversation with a prominent American business leader when I was prime minister. He said, ‘I just hope they don’t send the migrants home. How would we cope? We wouldn’t have the workforce here.’ This is the reality.

CORIN Should New Zealanders be worried about a Donald Trump presidency?

HELEN I wouldn’t even want to comment on the American campaign. There’s always a track when we’re so exposed to what’s happening in American politics, probably hearing more about it than we are about our own society at the moment and it’s almost like everybody gets personally involved, but I have to keep a high level of detachment.

CORIN Fair enough. What do you think about the state of social progressive movement around the world at the moment? How does it move forward?

HELEN Well, I think there’s always been people prepared to write off political movements or parties, but what goes around comes around. People try something for a while; it doesn’t work; they try something else. They try something; they get sick of it; they try something else. The truth is that the modern politics in democratic societies has become a bit like a consumer exercise. You try something; you try something else. I think parties just have to roll with the punches and keep putting out policy that they think will be good for the country and do their best to sell it.

CORIN But I just wonder – is the left really a broad church any more? For example, you managed to run a broad church when you were leader of the Labour Party. How necessary is that?

HELEN Oh yes, it’s possible.

CORIN Necessary?

HELEN And it’s necessary, because to win an election in New Zealand or probably any Western society, you must command the centre ground. You have your strong core of supporters, but you must get the centre ground voters, and I think I was successful in that for quite a lot of years.

CORIN Any parting advice for Andrew Little as he tries to navigate his path forward?

HELEN Well, my advice is just get out, be yourself and promote the policies that you really think will make a difference for New Zealand.

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