9th Floor – Helen Clark

This weeks 9th Floor interview was with Helen Clark.

RNZ: The Commander – Helen Clark

After researching and conducting interviews with five former Prime Ministers it’s a strange feeling to realise that the job doesn’t exist. There is no job description. You can take a chair of the board, consensus approach and delegate power to Ministers as steward of the Cabinet or you can be master and commander.

“We don’t have a written constitution so nowhere is it written down what are the powers of the Prime Minister. It’s partly your personality. It’s the skills that you’ve got and it’s how you use the office,” Clark says.

My feeling was that, such was her dominance, if Clark said something out loud then in would happen. She largely agrees, adding that “what you say in public you need to have thought about because if you say it, it’s going to happen”.

Her actions in calling a snap election in 2002 are a vivid example of how she wielded power. So how does it actually work? Can you just call a snap election? Not according to our last Prime Minister John Key. “The reality is… to have an early election you can’t just say, it’s a lovely day in March let’s have an election,” Key told RNZ last September. He went on say that in order to hold a snap election the government would have to either lose a confidence vote or go to the Governor General and say it could no longer command a majority.

So I asked Clark what happened when she went to the Governor General to make the case for a dissolution of Parliament in 2002. Did the Governor General test you? Clark laughed at this, an ‘are you kidding?’ laugh. “They act on advice.” So despite what Key believed, you can pretty much call an election when you like? “Pretty much,” Clark replied.

And that was pretty much the style of Clark the Prime Minister. She was a huge force and her influence spanned a vast array of policy and almost none of it, she famously said, came from the tens of thousands of public servants.

Clark is the best known of the Prime Ministers we interviewed. She was our first mass media Prime Minister, interviewed morning, noon and night. But her nine years on the ninth floor look different, nine years after leaving office.

Unlike Key, it was the voters who decided Clark’s time of departure. We discuss that too and her thoughts on what it is like to lose power are as interesting as how she sought to hold power and to exercise it.

The whole interview at RNZ will be fascinating to watch when I get a chance over the weekend.

Previous 9th Floor interviews: http://www.radionz.co.nz/programmes/the-9th-floor

Abuse and misogyny in politics

There may be more than misogyny at play here but it certainly suggests that female politicians are subjected to worse abuse than male politicians.

RNZ: Gender bias and Facebook comments: Is there a male equivalent of a vile hag?

Analysis – Is there a male equivalent of a “vile hag?” What about a “sanctimonious bitch?” How about “patronising c**t”?

When RNZ posts stories about gender to Facebook, they’re invariably the ones that attract the nastiest comments.

More than race, sexuality, the environment or politics, stories about gender attract abuse, profanity and flat-out nastiness.

That’s bad.

So, when we posted a video from our series The 9th Floor, featuring former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley pointing out the difference in the way women politicians are spoken about, compared to their men counterparts, we braced for an onslaught.

Of more than 100 comments across a dozen RNZ Facebook posts, there is one abusive comment for Jim Bolger (two if you count, “He’s an idiot”), one for Moore and one for Palmer. There are more than 60 for Dame Jenny.

Over at The Spinoff’s Facebook page, at the time of writing, Shipley is called a vindictive bitch and a despicable turd.

Jim Bolger gets called fascist, “thick as pig s**t”, Mike Moore gets called boring, and Geoffrey Palmer gets off with no comments that could be called abusive – that have remained public, anyway.

Politics can bring out the worst in some people. So can gender issues. And when gender and politics are combined it can get very ugly.

Attacks against male politicians happen a lot, but often the worst is directed at female politicians – and the abusers aren’t just male.

“Helen Clark and I could give you the long list of counterpoints. How people have described both of us, compared with our peers … It tells me more about other people than myself,” she told us.

“A giant predatory slug emerges when she unzips the ‘human’ bodysuit at night,” was one way she was described on Facebook.

She was also advised to lose “unwanted pounds” by cutting off her head.

“As vomitingly heinous and odious as perata [sic] or collins or bennett.”

She’s “wasting precious air”, “fit only for the gallows” and should be pushed “in the woodchipper”.

Appalling, but sadly not uncommon.

All the ex Prime Ministers featured in the 9th Floor so far are from last century so won’t be as fresh on many people’s minds, and younger people may hardly know them, but Shipley was only PM for two years following Bolger’s eight, so the quantity and degree of vitriol is way out of proportion to length of tenure. It looks like misogyny, or there is some other reason why female politicians get much worse abuse.

Helen Clark will feature on the 9th Floor this Friday, and she has been subjected to a lot of abuse in the past so will probably cop something like what Shipley did.

So the abuse isn’t just coming from the left or the right of politics, there are abusive people who lash out at politicians, especially female ones, regardless of their leanings.

9th Floor – Jenny Shipley

The next interview in the RNZ ‘9th Floor’ series features Jenny Shipley.


The 9th Floor: Jenny Shipley – The Challenger

By Guyon Espiner

Jenny Shipley evoked strong responses from New Zealanders during her time in politics and I suspect that, with her new comments about “middle class welfare” and working with Winston Peters, she is about to do so again.

But while people respond strongly to Shipley, there has been very little examination of her leadership. Researching the interview for The 9th Floor series, Tim Watkin and I found there were few books and very little academic study of this hugely influential New Zealand politician.

During the day we spent with Shipley she said New Zealand needs to take the “blowtorch” to middle class welfare, with student allowances and healthcare areas where middle and higher income earners should pay more. She finds it “morally bankrupt” that the country doesn’t have an honest discussion about this and that she personally feels “sick” that on her income she can’t opt out of subsidised health care.

She also has some fascinating observations about working with Winston Peters, who may again be a key coalition player after the coming election.

“Winston could have been Prime Minister but for want of himself. His complexity often got ahead of his capability. Watching him on a good day he was brilliant,” she says. “He was an 85 percent outstanding leader. And the 15 percent absolutely crippled him because he would get so myopically preoccupied with a diversion that it took away his capability and intent on the main goal.”

Shipley also says that Peters, Deputy Prime Minister from 1996 to 1998, was excellent at absorbing information but sometimes simply hadn’t done the reading. “I would make a personal judgement as he came into my office as to whether the envelope with the papers in it was either open or closed and it often would tell me the extent to which he had read what we were then going to discuss. I learned to both respect and manage it and on those days the meetings were short.”

Perhaps more than any other leader we spoke to she lets us in on the influences, conflicts and complexities of being Prime Minister. There are two striking aspects to this. The influence and impact on her family is one, and includes a harrowing story of how death threats against her affected her young son. The other is being a woman at the top of politics. Would history have treated Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson differently if they were men?

The 9th floor – Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Winston Russell Palmer KCMG AC QC  became the 33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand in August 1989. He was rolled by Mike Moore in September 1990, two months before an election that Labour crashed in.

Guyon Espiner (RNZ) is doing a series of interviews with five ex Prime Ministers., starting with Palmer.

The Standard has a summary in RNZ: The 9th floor – Palmer

The Reformer – Geoffrey Palmer: Prime Minister 1989-90

NZ’s earliest living Prime Minister begins the series reflecting on the revolutionary fourth Labour government and his year as one of its three Prime Ministers.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer was one of New Zealand’s most prolific lawmakers and reformers, but a reluctant politician.

Imagine a country where the Prime Minister set the price of basic goods. Where the Cabinet, without having to even put it to a vote in Parliament, decided the wages you get and the taxes and interest rates you pay.

That was the country Geoffrey Palmer was determined to change when he entered Parliament in 1979. It was an economy, he told The 9th Floor, that no young New Zealander would recognise. … Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, describes Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as running an elected dictatorship between 1975 and 1984. It’s a big claim. …

Ultimately of course Palmer would get his chance to run the country too. He was Prime Minister for 13 months sandwiched between David Lange and Mike Moore, who a desperate Labour party turned to just two months before the 1990 election in a bid to save the furniture.

So what was it like to run the country? What is it like to be Prime Minister? “I found being the leader a nuisance,” Palmer told us. …

RNZ report and audio: full hour-long interview

Palmer is an essential voice on what it means to exercise power – precisely because he never wanted it and remains highly sceptical of those who do.

Palmer is worth listening to but not necessarily heeding. He has proposed a written constitution that doesn’t seem to have excited many, and he has proposed making voting compulsory – see next post.

Comments at The Standard suggest that Palmer is not revered on the left, but being associated with the Lange/Douglas era of reform is an instant fail for many.

Sanctuary lead off.

That went a long way to re-confirming my view of Geoffrey Palmer as a very intelligent uber-technocrat completely besotted with his own cleverness.

The man has the certainty and fanaticism of the technocrat, the arrogance of a self-regarding intellectual and the political nous of a fool. He was, and remains, a very dangerous conviction politician with scant regard for the opinions of the hoi polloi.

Listening to Palmer, the viciously toxic culture of arrogance of the Roger Douglas era Labour cabinet comes flooding back.

He followed up:

Nothing wrong with being clever, but being a clever clogs who projects that as an intellectual hauteur is IMHO an absolutely fatal and fundamental flaw in a (so called in this case) left wing politician.

Palmer’s ability to diagnose the ills of the world are not particularly unique, you or I could have just have easily rattled of the list of fairly trite topics – climate change, Trump, the crisis of democracy – he did. What struck me about Palmer was his unerring technocratic ability to correctly identify a crisis then just as unerringly use that crisis as a vehicle to push an agenda driven and completely incorrect solution.

For instance, the crisis of democracy and voting won’t be fixed by a written constitution or fiddling with how we vote. Palmer’s constant fetishisation of mechanistic solutions to political problems with their origin in fundamental clashes between democracy and authoritarian global capitalism is entirely keeping with the machine like mind and lack of imagination of the high priesthood of neo-liberal technocrats across the West.

Palmer is more suited to being a legal academic than a political leader or reformer.

He comes across as too theoretical and not practical.