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Cablegate: Nz's "Presidential Race:" Focus On Pm Clark And

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/09/2015


Classified By: Charge D'Affaires David R. Burnett,
for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C) Summary: As reftel notes, in this undecided
campaign, the personality of the major parties' leaders may
really influence voters' decisions. The following are two
brief snapshots of what's on offer. End Summary.
Prime Minister Helen Clark
2. (C) Clark is the consummate career politician, who has
been accused of acting with the sort of arrogance that can
come with being the largely uncontested leader of the country
for the last two terms. She often contrasts her depth of
political experience with that of Brash, whom she tries to
portray as a political neophyte. Indeed her capability to
run the country's affairs is widely recognized, but this is
not to say that her personality wins over the voters. Her
length of political service is also both a liability and an
asset: Kiwis begrudgingly respect her experience, yet at the
same time are suspicious of her ability to shield herself
from association with her Government's errors.
3. (C) Clark's grasp of policy detail is positively
Herculean and has been put to good use at her weekly press
conferences and now in the election debates. Her political
instincts are widely recognized, despite some recent
decisions clearly being on the wrong side of public opinion,
notably the woefully received 2005 Budget which failed to
provide much anticipated and desired tax relief to the middle
class. Clark is faithful to the concept of centralized power
within government. All policy is vetted by her office and is
tightly controlled, as is the campaign. Very few are allowed
into the inner circle. As Prime Minister she is a very
controlling manager, bordering on obsessively so.
4. (C) Clark avoids obvious falsehoods and has by and large
supervised a more open government and disciplined erring
ministers. Yet she also habitually shies away from
close-to-the-bone truth, as evidenced with two noted
incidents. In the first, she signed a painting donated to
charity as her own during the last election campaign, even
though it later came to light it was the work of another.
This campaign season, the country witnessed the trial of a
number of police officers accused of rushing the PM's
motorcade at dangerous speeds to catch a flight to a rugby
match. In both instances, Clark was less than forthcoming
with taking responsibility for her actions or that of those
who ultimately fell under her command. She very quickly cut
support from Labour MP John Tamihere when he was implicated
in financial improprieties. One gets the feeling that she is
not the sort of leader to have a Truman-esque the buck
stops here, plaque on her desk.
5. (C) Clark is no shrinking violet. Even before hard-edged,
grizzled union men put her through the fire in her early days
in the Labour Party, she was a forthright and resolute
student activist. Clark was at the forefront of a group of
iron-willed feminist MPs who stormed the Labour party in the
early eighties despite their male counterpart's skepticism.
Many of these MPs remain in politics and sit at the right
hand of Clark.
6. (C) Clark is goal orientated and usually meticulous in
her planning. A demanding task-master, she exacts high
standards and a work ethic from staff and colleagues. Despite
the Labour Party having a history of turning on their young,
Clark has a very loyal following and her inner circle has
been notably cohesive since she became leader of the party
(her Chief of Staff, and gatekeeper, Heather Simpson, has
been at Clark's side since she was a backbencher. Simpson,
often referred to as the second most powerful person is New
Zealand, would walk across hot coals for Clark and is so
close to her that she can often speak on the behalf of Clark,
privately of course).
7. (C) Clark carefully weighs her arena, timing, message and
the appropriate messenger. For the first, head-to-head
debate with Brash, Clark nixed planned, dual radio-television
coverage, favoring instead only the radio format. While
Brash is no fashion plate, Clark is universally recognized as
not "camera friendly." When the media pressed her for weeks
on an election date, Clark obstinately responded in refrain
that she would make the date known "in due course." When
queried in Parliament, Clark routinely repeats limited,
scripted points, and refuses to be pushed into further
explanation or into ground that she does not control -- quite
different from Brash's manner in which he appears compelled
to explain. However, Clark is quick and sharp with criticism
if she believes she has either evidence to back her up or
sufficient cover that evidence is unnecessary, such as citing
confidential meeting notes which Labour claims shows that

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Brash has a secret agenda to eliminate the anti-nuclear
legislation. When she has neither evidence nor sufficient
cover, Clark deploys Labour ministers to make the accusations
and avoids potential, personal blow-back. Recent examples
include Education Minister Mallard's unsubstantiated claims
of U.S. financing of the National campaign and recent posters
from Young Labour depicted President Bush alongside Brash,
conveying that Brash would take New Zealand into Iraq.
8. (C) Although Clark is often viewed as cold and somewhat
remote to the aspirations of families - she has no children -
Clark and husband Peter Davies have a close bond.
Furthermore, she is very close to her parents, sisters and
their children and often holidays with them. Her physical
appearance is often mocked as dowdy and drab, despite
periodic efforts, especially at election time, to inject some
glamour into her looks. Clark does not appear to take such
mockery to heart and appears to succumb to such "extreme
makeovers" only at the behest of her image gurus. But by and
large, she gives the impression that she is very comfortable
in her own skin and is more interested in substance over
style. Still, Clark's exterior armor is not without its
chinks, and her rare political missteps often flow from her
personal than her political side. She has complained that
National's billboards portray her as "sleepy and grumpy."
Two weeks following a debate, Clark publicly lamented abuse
suffered from National supporters among the studio audience.
Recently, she entered a cockpit of an Air New Zealand flight
to confront a pilot who -- incorrectly -- blamed her for the
flight's delay.
9. (C) Perhaps a holdover from her upbringing in a very
frugal household, Clark exhibits a Presbyterian streak in her
determination to run balanced budgets. Arguably, Clark's
greatest strength is in her intellect (recognized by Brash
himself during a recent leader's debate). She has also
demonstrated coolness under pressure and steely ability to
withstand assaults that would have felled most mere mortals.
Clark's greatest weakness is her reserve. Coupled with her
mental agility and her passion for elite or solitary
recreations (opera and cross-country skiing) and her
childlessness, ordinary folk sense distance. Despite this,
many who know her intimately maintain that the private Clark
can be funny, warm and open, and we at the Embassy have found
the same. These traits, however, often do not come across on
Dr. Don Brash
10. (C) Brash portrays an awkward humanism that opens the
door for the middle ground vote. In campaign footage, he
always wears a tie -- a sometimes striking contrast such as
when he awkwardly slipped behind the wheel of a dragster or
when he has appeared side-by-side a hard-hat wearing
contingent to promote his party's tax cut policy. While his
wire-rimmed glasses, tie and overall professorial demeanor
suggest that he lies somewhat removed from the "mainstream"
Kiwi voter that he courts, he is nevertheless present and
engaging these mainstream -- or more precisely, swing voters.
Is it having an effect? Recent polling suggests movement
of "modest" income voters NZD 21 to 33 thousand; USD 15 to 24
thousand) from Labour to National (a swing as much as 15
points by one poll).
11. (C) Brash can exude authority, gravitas and, very
nearly, power. Embassy officers have been struck how much
more confident he has become about his own political skills
during this campaign. However, all this can be washed away
when Brash is cornered by a difficult question requiring a
succinct and straight forward answer. In such cases, he often
flounders and in doing so loses some of the key qualities
many look to in a leader, thus devaluing his currency. In
particular, Brash has fumbled, repeatedly, on matters of
policy and recollection of events concerning foreign
relations, asset sales, and the influence of outside
interests, such as business and religious groups. His
bumbling results from -- among other things -- his relatively
limited experience with political campaigning and the
political fray; his apparent, compelling need to explain
(often with too much detail) as demonstrated on his
equivocating on asset sales in a recent debate; and remnants
of old-fashioned (though not necessarily outmoded) values.
As such, he has in part lived up to Labour's label of him as
an amateur. On the other hand, Brash portrays a campaign and
policy platform based on values personally held rather than
policy objectives based on polls. Kiwis respond to this,
even when Brash expresses himself ineptly. Comments that he
took it easy on Clark in a debate because she was a woman and
that he is not a feminist, have, ironically, seemed to
capture several points of the woman vote from Labour.
Brash's gentlemanly way may also portray his general distaste
of and aversion to negative campaign politics.)
12. (C) Opinion is split on whether Brash is brave or just
plain naive in the way he at times acts contrary to the
conventional wisdom of a politician. (He entered politics
only in 2003.) Despite Labour trying to paint him as
dishonest and duplicitous, Brash has made the "honest"
appraisals of New Zealand's current state of affairs a
hallmark of his leadership, such as the state of race
relations as articulated in his speeches on Maori issues
("Orewa I and II"). Brash has even said that he will be
honest "even if it hurts politically," although ironically
this week he belatedly admitted he had in fact known of plans
by a Christian group to distribute anti-Labour and Greens
pamphlets, despite having denied this. Even so, in his
short time in politics Brash has made forthright, even
courageous, remarks on many issues considered sacrosanct in
New Zealand politics (again race relations and, although less
explicitly, the anti-nuclear legislation).
13. (C) Another interesting aspect of the campaign has been
National's repetition of a clip following Brash's January
2004 Orewa I speech. The clip shows a bit of turf striking
him in the face -- literal mudslinging. The image would
likely portray leadership weakness to the American eye, but
curiously, the "average" Kiwi appears to perceive this as
testament to Brash's willingness to highlight the need to
address the hard issues of race relations rather than to
white-wash the differences around the edges.
14. (C) Recently, Helen Clark, Don Brash and several other
candidates appeared in a series of photographs, each holding
the same baby. Brash happily kissed the baby, but Clark
nearly held the baby at arm's length. The collection of
photos exhibited what is a silent theme in the election,
important to many New Zealanders -- that Brash better
understands the dilemmas of families. He has spoken openly
about the failure of his first marriage, has children from
that marriage, and commented freely on his marriage to his
Singapore-born wife. His wife has featured in party
materials, and his daughter has appeared on the campaign
trail with him. In part, the connection to family is novel
because campaigning with family in New Zealand is not
traditional. The subtle message is that Brash -- though not
of the mainstream -- is very near to it, unlike the
relatively distant Clark.
15. (C) An analysis of Brash's core self is by no means a
linear exercise. He is somewhat of a paradox. Although a
classical liberal, free marketer and economic rationalist, he
voted for the bill that decriminalized prostitution. He is
divorced and remarried; in fact he cheated on his first wife.
Brash's residual Presbyterianism is of the liberal variety,
not the stern Scottish brand. And his "Christian socialism,"
which defined his formative years and is a holdover from his
father's politics, lingers in a residual social conscience.
Rather than a "no" or even "minimal" government advocate, he
is a "limited" government man. The government, he has
declared, "has a vital role, including funding education and
providing a social safety net."

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