Helen Clark reflects on life as a leader

Last updated 18:31 12/04/2014

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Despite being the most powerful woman at the United Nations, Helen Clark still calls her father every day so he can follow her travels on an atlas, which maps out the British Empire.

She doesn’t regret not having children, and credits a large portion of her success to being a "policy wonk". 

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand has revealed intimate details in an interview with Australian media, of how she rose to become the administrator of the UN Development Programme. 

"When I saw the position advertised, my first reaction was ’well, maybe they’re looking for someone whose spent their life working in international development’, and certainly the way these jobs are advertised you’d be put off if you didn’t have that experience," Clark told Australian Channel 9 host Alex Malley. 

"But it seemed to me that what these top positions in the UN need is leadership. Our organisation has so many people who are development experts and those who back them - that’s been their career, their life and that’s a very important one.

"But that has to be led, it has to be advocated for, it has to be communicated about, and those are different sorts of skills.

"So my pitch was "this job needs a leader, and I am that leader".

Having led the Labour Party without barely a whisper of a coup for six years in opposition and then nine years as Prime Minister, human resources at the UN could hardly argue that credential.

And it was incumbent Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who recommended Clark to the General Assembly, something she said she was "forever grateful" for. 

But rumours have been swirling for some time that Clark could be waiting in the wings for her next climb up the ladder. Having rolled Mike Moore as leader of the Labour Party, it’s a familiar position for Clark, but that wasn’t how things were done at the UN. 

"You have to be a lot more diplomatic in this job than you ever had to be as a politician in New Zealand, I can assure you," Clark said.

And speaking diplomatically, Clark said she certainly wasn’t pushing that issue. 

"My perspective is firstly, there is an incumbent with three years to run and he has my total support." 

But Clark said a whole raft of diplomatic and gender-based questions had to be asked before countries were in a position to decide on the role of the next secretary general. And not least, it depended which area of the world was the next in line for a secretary general from their region.

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Clark’s history as one of four girls growing up on an isolated Waikato farm is common knowledge among most in New Zealand. What many might not know is her connection to it still, from her Manhattan apartment. 

She still phones her 92-year-old father every night. 

"I’m very well-versed in what he’s doing."

And he follows his eldest daughter’s travels on an atlas which marks out the British Empire in red. 

Reflecting on her time in New Zealand politics, particularly towards the end, Clark said it was "regrettable" politics had become something of a consumer commodity. 

"Where you change the brand of toothpaste, you just change the brand of government without giving too much thought to the taste or what it’s going to do."

She likened her latter years to that of former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s.

"Towards the end, some of the sexist banter came out again, but for most of the time it wasn’t an issue. 

"But where it was an issue was when I became leader of the opposition. And I think there may be a factor in common here with Julia Gillard’s experience, in that I challenged a man for the job and I won."  

It was in that role where she batted off numerous attacks over her married life, and lack of offspring. 

"I often say I never chose to have children, it just wasn’t something that was on my agenda. I had other things I wanted to do with my life. 

"And I think it’s important to state that clearly, because it’s not everybody’s destiny to have children. It is a choice and you can make that choice."

- Helen Clark’s full exclusive interview with The Bottom Line can be viewed on  www.thebottomlinetv.com.au

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