Thursday, April 09, 2009

Thanks, Helen

Yesterday former Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered her valedictory speech to Parliament as she prepares to begin her UN job. She noted in her speech how much things had changed since she entered Parliament in 1981, such as that in that year “the number of women elected to parliament doubled from four to eight, and there were only six Maori MPs.”

Things have moved on, and the Parliament of today is inarguably far more diverse and representative of New Zealand than the mostly male, mostly Pakeha Parliament of those pre-MMP days. Helen Clark had much to do with helping Labour advance its ideals of fairness and justice for New Zealanders.

"Entering Parliament was for me a way of translating ideals into positive action—hard as that can sometimes be. There have been many issues over my 41 years of political activity when I’ve perhaps been ahead of public opinion at the time. Yet, so often, today’s avant-garde become tomorrow’s status quo. Such thoughts cross my mind when I see a cross section of New Zealand families celebrate their children’s civil union; or a government delegation from Vietnam welcomed as friends and regional partners, when once to support relations with their country was thought to be beyond the mainstream."

She noted that when Labour became government in 1999, “Fairness, opportunity, and security were our core values—and they were applied across the board.” She added, “Reconciliation, respect, inclusion, human rights—these were important themes for me as a Prime Minister with a deep belief in equality.”

Like most people, I take the keenest notice of issues that affect me directly, and here those values were clear to see. Helen Clark said that among other issues, “The Civil Union Act enabling rainbow couples to express their love for each other by cementing their relationship in law…[was]…important to me.” Obviously I agree.

There were plenty of people who despised Helen Clark, partly because she really was often ahead of public opinion. But she was also a strong, capable leader who managed her caucus and coalitions effectively. At the moment, she’s the only Prime Minister to successfully manage a coalition government under MMP. Despite the lingering negativity among some on the right, she’ll no doubt go down in history as one of our best prime ministers precisely because the hallmark of her premiership was competent management, done on behalf of all New Zealanders and not just the privileged few.

1999 was the first year I was eligible to vote in New Zealand, and my “two ticks” helped to make Helen Clark Prime Minister. It was one of the best votes I ever cast. I’m sorry to see her leaving, but I’m grateful for what she and Labour were able to do.

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