The sharp-suitor

16:00, Mar 09 2013
Smart cookie: David Clark ... ‘‘Labour’s keenest bean’’, is up against Steven Joyce in the economic development portfolio.

He is Labour's new rocket man.

From the top of his shaven head and his "geek chic" black-framed glasses to the sharp suits, and with a smart CV to match, the Reverend Dr David Clark is on the move.

Maybe with a name that is half David Lange, half Helen Clark, he was destined for promotion in a party hungry for new talent.

But just over 12 months after being elected in Dunedin North, he has been fast-tracked to No 12 in David Shearer's lineup to mark the Government's smoothest operator, Steven Joyce, in the economic development portfolio.

His networks in Labour are strong, especially among the young and the restless on the Left, and he has been championed by finance spokesman David Parker and Labour attack dog Trevor Mallard, marking him out as a future finance supremo for Labour if Parker leaves. It is a huge promotion for the man described by colleagues as Labour's "keenest bean" and one who is either too nice or too new to have cultivated any obvious enemies in the caucus.

His potted history hardly marks him out as a party time-server. Born in 1973, back when Norman Kirk was prime minister, his mother was an Otara GP and his father owned a small manufacturing, importing and paint business. But Clark, a former competitive cyclist who turned a fit-looking 40 in January, came to party politics only 10 years ago. At the time he was a Treasury analyst cutting his teeth on Youth Affairs ("A $15 million vote was deemed small enough it wouldn't matter too much if you mucked it up").


The department hired graduates "who could bluff their way through a basic economic interview". Armed with a PhD in theology (on noted Christian existentialist Helmut Rex), Clark spent a week swotting up economic terms before his interview and got the job. It was Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson, over a beer in a Wellington bar, who pointed him towards his next role, advising Parker.

Clark, a Presbyterian minister, returned the favour, officiating at Robertson's civil union. (The Wellington Central MP's partner, Alf, joked at the ceremony that given the keen interest from singles of both sexes he was sorry to report Clark was neither gay nor single.) Clark and wife Katrina have two children, the youngest just 3 months old. Katrina is on maternity leave from the Ministry of Economic Development, overseen by his new political duelling partner, Joyce.

Clark concedes: "We will have to face how we handle that" but says she is an exemplary civil servant and a "fanatical observer" of the public service code of conduct.

They met at an economists' conference. Was it love at first sight? "Definitely along those lines." But he steers the conversation away. "Families of MPs pay too high a price for the spotlight."

His own beliefs are an open book, though, summed up by the party's founders as "applied Christianity". "I am described as a liberal within church circles . . . it's about love and concern for neighbour . . . It's the story of freedom that's in the Bible."

As for gay marriage, he finds no particular reference in the Bible and certainly not in the New Testament. "Jesus hung out with all kinds of reprobates. The wags say: ‘He lived with his mother till he was in his 30s and hung out with 12 blokes' - what do you make of that?" Where the Old Testament appears to condemn homosexuality it also talks about stoning people to death "for cutting their hair on the side of their heads or not sleeping outside the camp site when menstruating . . . The culture has changed and our understanding of humanity has changed".

So far his biggest impact in the House has been his bill to ensure a statutory holiday on the next Monday if Waitangi Day or Anzac Day fall on a weekend. It should have the numbers to pass - a rare victory for a non-Government measure. In the economic development role he favours subsidies for some industry sectors, especially to boost the smart economy.

Clark says the free market is a good servant if properly regulated. His big political aim is to reduce inequalities and progress there is how he will judge his own success.

So does the party's fastest-rising star want to be leader? He has not given "much" thought to that.

But at the risk of endless "Yes Minister, Minister" jokes he is certain he wants to be in Cabinet where the real power rests. He is on the way.

Sunday Star Times