Since well before Helen Clark officially announced her candidacy for UN Secretary General, New Zealand opinion-makers have been warmly supportive of her bid. We get excited when Kiwis make the world stage. And it’s assumed a New Zealander in the job would open doors for others and expand our influence.
The Maori Party’s announcement that they won’t endorse Clark should at the very least force us to look a bit more closely at the love fest. Notwithstanding the furious reaction of #Helen4SG fans across the political and media spectrums, with accusations of stupidity, betrayal, and even treason, the Maori Party has given us all permission to have a more real conversation. After all, when was the last time the NZ Government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a foreign adventure without Andrew Little or Winston Peters calling for someone to resign?
Let’s start with the assumption underpinning the agitated reaction. That Clark at the helm of the UN will significantly benefit New Zealand. How exactly? Other than as a branding exercise, Clark’s appointment as Secretary General would mean very little to us, and certainly not enough to bully critics who have questioned her credentials to lead an organisation with a very substantial stake in matters of indigenous rights, based on her own actual record when having to make strategic choices on these very matters.
Leaving aside the fact that it would be a gross breach of Clark’s responsibilities to allow New Zealand to benefit in any way from her appointment, the idea is that it gives New Zealand prestige and a bit of a reputation boost.
When Mike Hosking came into bat for Clark, he drummed up the significance of this new influence for New Zealand: “It’s the influence of the job, it’s the doors it opens, it’s the access it gives. Remember that every time a Prime Minister from this country heads off to an international pow wow, it’s not the event itself that counts, it’s the pull-asides, the dinners, the moments in the corridors. That is where the action is and where the deals are done. Anything this country can do to get itself front and centre with the genuine global heavy weights, we should be leaping at.”
Even if the real world of diplomatic power was as much like a Hollywood movie as Hosking fantasises, Helen Clark is hardly the kind of politician to pull strings for New Zealand. If anything, she’d bend over backwards to avoid any perception of favour at all. That’s the job.
I haven’t been able to find a decent explanation of how that turns into a tangible benefit for Kiwis. It’s a long bow to draw to suggest it would, say, help us with trade negotiations or give us more influence over global security issues as a soft power.
When the Maori Party executive was deciding whether or not to endorse Clark, I wouldn’t expect them to think that New Zealand had a whole lot to win or lose either way depending on the outcome. A sense of obligation to Clark because of the small and indirect effect on our international reputation on the not-that-likely chance she wins isn’t a very attractive incentive to remain silent, when you have a chance to speak directly to your supporters (and potential supporters) on something that is at the core of your relationship with them.
Instead of basing their decision on a perceived special benefit for the country, the Maori Party has simply measured her up against the criteria that matter to them in the role, and concluded that her record does not justify their support.
This isn’t even to say that they need to know anything about the other candidates. They have not endorsed another candidate, or even said that Clark is not the best of that particular bunch. The message from the Maori Party is simpler than that: ‘Deny our rights to the foreshore and seabed, raid our communities on bogus terrorism charges, call us haters and wreckers, and you don’t earn our endorsement for your new job’. A job from which it’s possible to champion indigenous rights, or to side-line them.
Utu? Maybe. There is certainly a fair sense that Helen Clark has not herself taken steps to restore balance following the big hurts that even the Labour Party has itself apologised for. When her pitch to overcome “it’s the Eastern Bloc’s turn” has been to distinguish New Zealand from the Western and Others Group on the grounds of our South Pacific uniqueness, then surely the very people whose mana she is trading on have every right to protect it.
Sam Gribben is a left wing activist in Wellington