Helen Clark plays her hand

By September 16, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Sept. 16 (UPI) — I met New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2005 on an official visit to Germany. We had a sidebar at a reception hosted in the Grand Marriott Hotel on Potsdamer Platz. With her was Ambassador Peter Hamilton, who is now a deputy secretary in the New Zealand Foreign Ministry.

Clark was robust, tough, salt-of-the-earth and smart. I promised I would not repeat the comments we shared about U.S. politics. Someday, when she is no longer prime minister — then, and only then with her permission — will I reveal her comments about the United States and international affairs. Suffice it to say that she was dead-on the mark.

After nearly 10 years as prime minister, Clark will disband Parliament on Oct. 3. She has called elections for Nov. 8 — just four days after the U.S. elections. She hopes there will be a strong wind across the Pacific to help her in her uphill quest for re-election.

Clark was an academic when she came to politics. Her first campaign as the Labor candidate against Prime Minister Jenny Shipley — New Zealand’s first female prime minister — was an upset. Clark made trust the cornerstone of her second campaign. People generally like Clark, though her poll numbers have begun to fall. She is especially trying to shore up votes among seniors, a key swing vote. Her competitor, John Key, is the chair of the National Party, a centrist right-of-center party.

Clark is presiding over an economy showing signs of a slowdown after years of robust growth. She benefits from interest rates having begun to fall. The New Zealand dollar is strong against the U.S. dollar. Some do not like this as it hurts exports.

The cornerstone of the New Zealand economy is sheep — of which there are 40 million. Yes, yes, yes, New Zealanders are used to all the sheep jokes — which they mostly hear from their brethren in Australia — still some 1,300 miles away across the Tasman Sea. New Zealanders have likely created some of the best sheep jokes themselves. The entire population is 4 million. The capital is Wellington and the largest city is Auckland, with a population of some 1.3 million. New Zealand is roughly the size of the United Kingdom.

My relationship with New Zealand goes back some 10 years. Prague-based Honorary Consul Vera Egermayer is one of the founders of the Prague Society, a partner of the Global Panel Foundation. Recently retired Commonwealth Secretary-General and former Deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon has taken the mantle as chair of Global Panel Australasia. Defense Minister Phil Goff is on the advisory board; as is Peter Wall, the chief executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; respected academic Professor Margaret Clark; industrialist Alex van Heeren; and Ambassador Winston Cochrane, a close friend who has held senior ambassadorial postings including Germany, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland.

I met with Goff this morning. Phil is also concurrently trade minister. Previously Phil had been foreign minister for some nine years. We hosted him in Berlin and Prague. We also have hosted former Minister of Trade Negotiations Jim Sutton and Minister of Education Trevor Mallard. New Zealand is a firm believer in streamlined government. That notwithstanding, her ministers stand up extremely well to any ministers I have interacted with.

The New Zealand military’s personnel and equipment preparedness was criticized in a recent government report. It is certainly true that the New Zealand government must increase its defense budget to meet future needs. But, let it be said from my years of working with the New Zealand military, they have been “A caliber, top-of-the-mark.”

The enlisted ranks are well educated, the officers at the height of their game — and with superb esprit de corps to boot. I can only warn not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Certainly, Goff is up to the task to give the right leadership, along with Secretary of Defense John McKinnon, a superb manager and administrator.

New Zealand sees its role in the Pacific Rim, though successive governments — Labor and National — have not shied away from committing the country’s troops to international deployments. New Zealand mostly deploys troops disproportionate to its size; European governments might learn from New Zealand’s example. Where there is conflict, New Zealand is present, either with humanitarian aid or with its military.

Whoever is prime minister, there are serious questions to address. Energy security and water resource management are key issues. How will New Zealand compete in harsh Asian markets? How will it balance human rights with free trade? What will New Zealand’s role be in an expanded Europe? Where will it open new embassies? His recent fall over a donation scandal notwithstanding, Foreign Minister Winston Peters had managed to get the foreign ministry budget increased by some $430 million.

Helen Clark is down in the polls, but hardly down for the count.

She has pulled the genie out of the bottle before, and she might just succeed again.

This time, however, her path to victory is infinitely more complicated.

UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He is a vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.