On Thursday evening I attended the Inaugural Dr Rufus Rogers Lecture, at the University of Waikato, that featured Rt. Hon Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) and current United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) head (since 2009).
I have to say that at the beginning of the night that the ladies and I that I attended with were like a bunch of groupies buying the book, getting Helen's autograph and attempting to get the perfect photo. Helen, if you're ever reading this, my apologies!
But in our defence, Helen is truly a leader we admire. The first elected female Prime Minister of New Zealand (remember that though Jenny Shipley was the first female PM, she was not elected in the role, but pushed Jim Bolger out of his) despite rocky times in her six years as the leader of Labour as the leader of the opposition, she held on for grim death; she was a solid Prime Minister during her time in the office; and she is genuinely interested in people and engages with them at the most interesting levels.
This I know personally. The first time I met Helen was in a lift of a hotel in Wellington in the holidays prior to the 1999 election. The NZEI president had instructed us not to be late back from lunch as Helen Clark and Trevor Mallard were arriving as our guests straight away. I was born late, and have been late ever since, so it was kind of inevitable that I would be that day, and that I would share a lift with Helen and Trevor. To make matters worse, I name dropped Helen's sister Sandra, as I worked with her in my first year as a beginning teacher. Helen was extremely gracious.
The next time I met Helen was during our school camp in 2004. We were booked to do the education visit at Martha Mine as part of our camp. We had no idea that the Prime Minister that day was also visiting, along with Basil Morrison (then mayor of the Hauraki district) and Helen's parents (among others). The children and their parents were very excited when Helen and her entourage came into the education centre. It was a big surprise. Helen went around the room and talked to the children about what they were doing, signed autographs, and agreed to one girl's request for a photograph together. It turned out, after all the fun things we had done, to be the highlight of the camp for many of the children.
Recently there was a two part documentary about Helen Clark screened on TV3 as part of their Inside New Zealand season. It talked about the struggles she had in the initial years with low polling for both Helen and the Labour party, but it explained how she held onto the leadership (by releasing her "inner farmgirl") and built the party back up to almost winning the 1996 election, and more so to win in 1999 (by forming a coalition). Essentially, after surviving a coup from some of her closest friends in Labour, she put most of them in front bench roles, and kept them very busy and very close.
Tonight Helen discussed how she got the role of head of the UNDP, what the role entails and the challenges of the role. A friend in London had suggested that she apply. Helen scoffed at first, not believing that she had the required experience... but her friend then pointed out all the skills she had used as the Prime Minister and how those were similar skills to the job available.
Inequality has increased significantly in the last thirty years, and Helen commented that it is a huge issue in addressing poverty and environmental issues. If you do not address inequality, you can not minimise or eliminate poverty. The UN had developed the Millennium goals in 2000, one of which was to halve poverty. This goal has been achieved, but Helen pointed out that was fine if you were in the half that had risen out of poverty, not so if you were in the halve still in poverty.
Unstable nations that have difficulties in maintaining stable government or exist in Helen Clark's agenda. She made comments on the situation in the Central African Republic (which I had to google as I wasn't sure where it was - it's between Cameroon and South Sudan), Mali, Egypt and Syria. She talked about the impact of climate change with the increase of extreme weather events, the impact of natural disasters and how as an international community we help with this.
And this is where Helen believes that resilience is a vital value and trait for people to have. She said that it starts with having strong families and consequently strong communities. Helen credited her loving parents and family for her values and community involvement, and that helped shape what she has achieved.
Helen set the standard for being the leader of the Labour party.
David Shearer came into parliament by winning the by-election for the Mt Albert seat vacated by Helen Clark when she took up her new role with the UN. Shearer had been working with the UN for the previous twenty years give or take. Shearer had been "working for the UN, managing the provision of aid to countries including Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq." (Wikipedia)
Shearer came into the leadership as a "clean skin" so to speak. He was not tainted with the Rogernomics era of Labour or known for being part of the Clark era. Due to his background of working in some of the most challenging hotspots in the world, it was hoped that he would bring strong leadership and challenge John Key in the leadership stakes.
Rumours abounded frequently about how stable his leadership was, who was about to challenge him and that he was on notice from senior MPs. Before the annual conference in 2012 the rumour mill was in overdrive that David Cunliffe (who lost out to Shearer in December 2011) would be challenging Shearer for the leadership. He denied it and pledged his allegiance to Shearer, only to be outted for how far his challenge had proceeded, be lambasted by Shearer and fellow colleagues, and then be relegated to the back benches by Shearer.
However decisive this move by Shearer appeared, his position still did not look solid. He did not seem to have that "inner farmgirl" to unleash and bring the party in behind him in a united fashion. In fact the party appeared to have no unity. Last month when Duncan Garner tweeted that a colleague of his had a letter from an anonymous party source claiming Shearer was on notice was big news. Everybody across the political spectrum had something to say, including Shearer who told reporters to "read my lips" and "I will be the Labour leader in 2014". The letter did not materialise and Garner was rubbished as scare mongering and criticised for leaving a colleague hanging.
Yet a month later, it appears that a delegation of senior MPs visited Shearer and let him know that things were not good at all, and please do the decent thing. Consequently we had Shearer's resignation. He did it with dignity and it demonstrated that he has humility.
"I have been privileged to lead the Labour team for the past 20 months and I'm proud of the gains we have made in that time.
"But we need to do more. So the time has come for me to hand over to a new leader who can take Labour through to 2014.
"There was no letter, there was no ultimatum, there was no vote. But from the soundings I've taken from colleagues I realise I no longer enjoy the confidence of a number of my caucus colleagues,'' Mr Shearer said.
"After spending the last 20 years of my life leading humanitarian and reconstruction projects overseas, I came home to New Zealand because I'm passionate about this country.
"We have a history to be proud of, but I believe our best years lie in front of us. But to really take this country forward, we need a change of government. We need a progressive government with fresh ideas.'' (NZ Herald 22/8/13)
What followed were wonderful endorsements of his character and humility from across the house, more so from his own MPs who were not united behind him after all. The compliments about Shearer being a great guy with humility and compassion and a hard worker are all true. However, Te Ururoa Flavell of the Maori Party said it aptly when he said it was probably inevitable. And Hone Harawira (Mana) said he always found Mr Shearer to be "very very friendly and very open''... "I think that was probably his downfall - nice guys don't last long in this game.''
Unfortunately, David Shearer has failed to meet the standard
Now Labour is about to vote in a new leader, using a new system. The caucus will make up 40% of the votes, party members 40% of the vote and affiliated unions will make up the remaining 20% of the vote.
Grant Robertson is the current deputy leader and has be accused, by John Key, as undermining Shearer throughout their tenure as the leadership team. Robertson has been the MP for Central Wellington since the 2008 election. He has worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the New Zealand Overseas Aid Programme. He then became an advisor to the Labour government from the early 2000s. Robertson has seemed a very solid party man in his time in the house.
While Andrew Little (list MP since 2011) and Jacinda Adern (list MP since 2008) have said they won't be entering the leadership race despite a poll showing that they were on the radar of the voting public as a potential Labour leader. Whether or not they consider themselves too young in parliament experience or life in general, it is probably a wise move at this point.
All the people above have excellent education and credentials. They all make great politicians and have leadership qualities, but the question is, "Who has the X-Factor?"
Whoever does have the X-Factor to win the race to being the Labour leader will need to have and do the following in my opinion:
- unite the party - Labour doesn't need to be squabbling amongst themselves for the next year; we need them to show that they can beat John Key and National at their own game.
- be able to do a sound bite with confidence for the 6 o'clock news - it's all about looks in this game.
- be a good debater in the house - put John Key, Steven Joyce, Judith Collins and the rest back in their box please!!
- keep your friends close and your enemies closer - keep your enemies very busy in key jobs so they don't have time to mischief make. It worked for Helen Clark, and maybe that's why Steven Joyce has so many ministerial responsibilities (just throwing that out there in case JK and Joyce aren't as close as everyone says).
- keep close tabs on what everyone is doing - Helen did, that way she minimised surprises and everyone kept on top of things.
- put out good policy (especially dumping National Standards and getting rid of Charter Schools) and back it throughout the party - you need to show that you can be the next government.
- connect to the New Zealand public at many levels - get out there and meet the people and be involved in as many events as possible. Shearer did do this, but it has to also mesh with how people see you on the tv fronting issues.
- everytime National does something dumb, use it - honestly, National has had some right regular stuff ups in the last year, but no hay has been made while the sun shines for Labour when these stuff ups happen. You should be all over those stuff ups like shit on a blanket (to be blunt).
- watch that doco about Helen and learn from her example of how to stick to it, unite the party, and get the public onside. Pay particular attention to the part about when there was almost a coup against her before the 1999 election.
- meet the standard of being a leader - we need you to do your job because this is a democracy.