Helen Clark: Leadership for real!

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Politics can be a rough game and women often get pushed aside if they don't play by the traditional patriarchal rules of the game.

I followed with keen interest the outcome of the recent New Zealand national election and jumped for joy when I heard it looks like Labour's Helen Clark will again be Prime Minister in a Coalition government. It's no small feat to do it three times in a row, and having met her in person, just days after the election was called, I feel very happy that this amazing woman has pulled it off again.

Under New Zealand's Mixed Member Proportional electoral system, coalition governments are more likely outcomes than our first-past-the-post system, when results do not reflect the way people actually vote. Clark's coalition will include, amongst others, the Green Party, the new Maori Party, and other progressives. As discussions for a progressive coalition were ongoing, I had no doubt that Clark is the woman to make it happen. She is down-to-earth and principled with a political track record, that has earned her huge personal support from the electorate.

I was very struck by her when I first saw her, on the front steps of the House of Representatives in Wellington. Our Canadian Parliamentary delegation happened to come across Clark “unannounced” as we made our way inside for meetings. There she was, chatting away to people, no apparent “handlers” or security people coaxing or crowding her, looking relaxed and interested, wearing slacks and comfortable shoes, talking with regular folk who happened to be on the steps at the same time. She didn't seem to fit the dressed-up, glamorous mold that women so often get pushed into — and I sensed she was very much her own person, and confident about it.

Later, in her plainly furnished and ordinary looking office, she pushed aside a huge pile of papers, making it very clear she'd much rather “talk politics” with Canadian MPs, than go through the papers. She told us she had a close affinity for Canada, and that Canadians and Kiwis shared many common values, of openness, and being more laid back, besides being neighbours to large powerful countries, and therefore struggling to maintain our identities.

And so we had a great discussion including democratic electoral reform, and New Zealand's experience with Proportional Representation (PR). I remember her saying PR doesn't only change the way people vote (they have two ballots in New Zealand elections — one to elect your MP and one party ballot) but it fundamentally changes the “political culture.” PR gives smaller parties a stronger role in Parliament and changes the way politics is done. It forces major parties to negotiate both within and outside the Party, as evidenced by the latest election result. Clark told us that this changed political culture requires much more give and take, and more flexibility and openness in making decisions.

I found it incredibly affirming and inspiring to meet this woman who is a powerful, progressive, feminist leader, who has served two terms as Prime Minister of New Zealand, and looks to be going into her third term. We don't have enough female political role models and mentors, for women who are interested and active in politics and activism, so to see a woman like Helen Clark, who has successfully governed and developed progressive policies and created a strong sense of her own identity as well as a Kiwi identity that is real for people, in a way that is inclusive and open, is truly refreshing.

Politics can be a rough game and women often get pushed aside if they don't play by the traditional patriarchal rules of the game. Clark is no pushover and she has developed her own style and sticks to strong democratic and equality-seeking values, that keep her close to people in a transparent political process.

As I am back in Parliament here in Ottawa — where we still struggle with sexism, and a totally inadequate level of representation for women — I am heartened by Clark's success and celebrate her work by knowing what she has accomplished is possible for all women to aspire to. Women make great leaders and we don't recognize that nearly enough.

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