Between Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US election and Helen Clark’s failed bid for UN secretary-general, 2016 was a hell of a year for women in high office. Clinton didn’t manage to smash her literal glass ceiling, while Clark claims she hit hers.

Long thought to be the clear frontrunner, New Zealand’s former prime minister and the then-administrator of the UN Development Program was firmly denied the UN’s top job. It was a choice that disappointed many, not least of which those advocating a woman for the job. In the organisation’s 72-year history, the position has been exclusively held by men.

Clark’s not surprised by the comparison — one prophetically made in the new film, My Year With Helen. “Women were going for top jobs and they didn’t get them,” she tells Crikey

When asked for her views on how the UN needs to change in 2018, she sighs deeply. 

“Well, it’s got a range of challenges.”

Though Clark has directly refuted allegations that women were discriminated against in the race for SG, she’s sceptical about the overall impartiality and objectivity of the institution as a whole. 

“Firstly, the fact that the UN has a constitution which is very difficult to change,” she says. “At the core of that is the proposition of permanent membership to the Security Council which is stuck in the geo-politics of 1945. 

“This is clearly a problem, because it’s not seen as representative. One of the issues is that when organisations aren’t seen as representative and responsive, over time their relevance withers and in extreme situations they disappear. Now, the UN’s not going to disappear, but it does need an injection of sheer political reality and updating to be seen as relevant to our time.”

Clark argues that the five permanent members of the Security Council (Russia, the US, the UK, France and China) have “acquired an enormous amount of power” that would best be limited. She also suggests the SG should be restricted to one term in office to deliver action quickly — “The way things are the moment, the UN is not seen as anything like a top or sometimes even relevant actor in the resolution of [conflicts]” — and calls for changes to the SG selection process.

“The list kind of goes on.” She laughs. “But we can add to it the bureaucracy, the lack or meritocracy, these are all issues … To watch from miles away, one is concerned. One doesn’t see much sign of the increased relevance that the UN needs to have. It’s one of those organisations that has to be better, and I think it is struggling.”

Clark really is miles away from it now. “In my mind, I’ve always been able to shut the door on something and move on to the next thing. That’s essentially what I did in October 2016,” she says.

She stayed at the UN just six months after losing out to Portugal’s Antonio Guterres, ending eight years in her role as administrator. Clark now enjoys a full roster of speaking engagements and policy development roles

This distance certainly allows her to take a number of swings at the organisation but, though the long-serving former NZ PM is known as no-nonsense, she shows considerable restraint in discussing other aspects of her political career. 

When Clark — an advocate for asylum seekers who played an active role in the Tampa affair — is asked about Australia’s recent controversial appointment to the Human Rights Council, she congratulates them on successful diplomacy and wishes them well. When asked about simmering tensions between New Zealand and Australia, she stresses the importance of the bilateral relationship, no matter who’s in office: “I worked very well with John Howard and (laughs) we’re very different people!” 

Then the subject turns towards women in politics and she’s frank once again. “I think young women need to see [politics] as a career that they would pursue, and then they’ve got to get in and fight for a place,” she says, while also acknowledging structural issues like childcare and spousal support. “Sometimes the image of politics can be that it’s not a very attractive position, but actually we need people of integrity with good ethics to come forward and run for public office. That should include as many women as men.”

“I also think that lifting up more women can change the tone of how parliaments are run,” she goes on. “[New Zealand’s] definitely benefited from the presence of more women — we’re up to 38% now.” On the issue of tone, she says, “I think women are fundamentally better behaved in these settings” while laughing. “Before women came in, it was pretty much a boys’ club, and until you get to critical mass with women, that stays the same.”

The tone of New Zealand’s political discourse has of course had a huge shift with the election of 37-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — the first woman to take the leadership since Clark left office in 2008. When asked for advice for Ardern from one woman PM to another, Clark sighs again. “I think Jacinda is navigating that pretty well. She turns a deaf ear to silly sexist stuff which is around — it’s always around, never goes away. Because if you respond to it, that gives it oxygen.”

She laughs. “Don’t bother responding. Just ride over it, drive through it.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey