Who Loves Ya Baby? Last Thursday’s (1/10/15) statement from the so-called "Darling of the Left", Helen Clark, in which she signalled her strong support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (as it now should be called) was no mistake. It was an act of deliberate political sabotage.
THE MOMENT THE WORDS were out of her mouth the political wreckage began to pile up. On Radio Live, Sean Plunket positively whooped with delight. It took only a nanosecond for the right-wing shock-jock to register the implications of Helen Clark’s public endorsement of John Key’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Now that the “Darling of the Left” had come out in its favour, Plunket reassured his talk-back audience, the TPP Debate is surely over. Someone, he said, should tell the “tin-foil hat wearers”.
Those who cherish Clark’s memory as Labour’s most successful leader since Peter Fraser, have offered numerous excuses for her actions. She was misquoted, they insist. She didn’t understand how her words would be distorted, others say. Living in New York, she must have been unaware of the way the TPP debate had evolved in New Zealand. Helen Clark would never have knowingly delivered such a brutal blow to her own party.
Seven years after her defeat by John Key’s National Party, Clark’s interest in Labour remains undiminished. Kept informed of its every move by a coterie of loyal supporters, she cannot credibly claim to have been ignorant of the impact her little encomium on the importance of international trade would have.
“What always haunts a Prime Minister”, said Clark, “is: ‘Will there be a series of trade blocs develop that you are not part of?’ Because that is unthinkable for New Zealand as an export-oriented, small trading nation. So of course New Zealand has to be in on the action with the TPP and go for the very best deal it can as the agreement expands beyond the original four economies to a wider regional agreement.”
John Key and his Trade Minister, Tim Groser, have yet to set out the argument for signing the TPP as succinctly as Clark did in New York – or with more force. There is absolutely no way that such a well-considered statement could’ve just slipped out – by mistake.
Ever since taking up her position as the Head of the United Nations Development Programme, the No. 3 position in the United Nations, Clark has been scrupulously careful to avoid making any kind of statement that could, in the slightest degree, impinge on the domestic politics of her homeland – or those of any other UN member, for that matter. And yet, there she was, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her erstwhile political nemesis, offering eloquent support to one of his government’s most controversial policies.
No, last Thursday’s (1/10/15) statement from Helen Clark was no mistake. It was an act of deliberate political sabotage.
But what could be so important to Labour’s former leader that she was willing to drive a dagger into the back of Andrew Little, its present incumbent? Was it spite? Had Clark taken umbrage at Labour’s decision to move away from the rock-solid bi-partisanship on free-trade that she and Phil Goff had made a cornerstone of their government’s foreign policy? Was she hoping to spook Little into some sort of last minute revision of Labour’s highly conditional support for the TPP? After all, the spectacle of the two people who have governed New Zealand since 1999, speaking with one voice on the TPP, was bound to pack a hefty punch. Or, maybe, it was simply a case of: ‘I’ll agree to scratch your back on TPP, if you’ll agree to scratch mine when the time comes to elect the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.’
No matter how reluctantly arrived at, the only conclusion to be drawn from this episode is that Clark’s transition, from principled social-democrat, to morally desiccated member of the international administrative elite, is now complete. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that, throughout her career, Clark was never comfortable about stepping too far away from the well-trodden path. She may never have liked neoliberalism, but if it was the only game in town, then she would learn to play.
Sean Plunket is quite right about the undermining effect Clark’s words are bound to have on the Anti-TPP Movement – especially among its middle-aged and middle-class supporters. He is, however, quite wrong in his assessment of Clark’s status among genuinely progressive New Zealanders.
“Darling of the Left” she may have been on Thursday morning, but by Thursday evening Helen Clark was anything but.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 5 October 2015.