Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Helen Clark: Some Washington Encounters: Ken Ross Discusses the Labour Prime Minister's Dealings with 'Long Faced Officials', the Reagan Retreads and Christopher Hill

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Helen Clark: Some Washington Encounters: Ken Ross Discusses the Labour Prime Minister's Dealings with 'Long Faced Officials', the Reagan Retreads and Christopher Hill

Article excerpt

Helen Clark's December 1984 days in Washington DC promoting New Zealand going nuclear free had ramifications when she became prime minister fifteen years later. Several of the crucial players--New Zealanders and American--she had tangled with in Washington in December 1984 were combatants when as prime minister she made her generation-defining 'No' choice to membership of the military coalition that invaded Iraq in March 2003. Her performance vis-a-vis the Reagan Retreads illustrates how an uncomfortable bilateral relationship can be managed without public histrionics in either capital.


'originally lukewarm on the anti-nuclear policy ... Lange came to be its principal champion and advocate.' (Russell Marshall, 2005) (1)

Marshall's obituary buries Lange superbly. But actually Helen Clark was more vital to New Zealand going nuclear free. It was not until 1990 that Lange gave her the credit due for her securing the passage of the legislation that made New Zealand nuclear free on 9 June 1987. (2)

Helen Clark's significance in beating Lange into shape then and the consequences for her when she was prime minister are the focus of this article. I offer just a sliver of the whole story. It is an aspect that has been short-changed in the scholarship of two outstanding moments in New Zealand's diplomatic history since 1945--going nuclear free and saying no to joining the 'coalition of the willing' against Iraq in March 2003.

For the first nine months of his prime ministership Lange vacillated on whether he would ensure his country became the first ever nuclear-free state. During those months he and Clark tussled on this goal, deeply complicated by the dreadful dynamics between the parliamentary leadership and the Labour Party hierarchy (at the time, Clark, though an MP, aligned with the party hierarchy). The personal antipathies and loyalties around the former party president, Jim Anderton, saw the Lange government cementing the nuclear free status while sidelining him.

The back-story to New Zealand's nuclear free status ranks among the most tumultuous episodes in the Labour Party's first century, now being celebrated. A fierce debate within the party stretched through the first half of the 1980s. Clark was determinedly engaged, stiffening the stance. Bill Rowling, while losing the party leadership, skilfully formulated a compromise stance ('qualified alignment') that had Labour impressing most New Zealanders with its conviction that once in government it could enable their country to become nuclear free. (The US Embassy in Wellington, like many other watchers, pondered this turmoil's implications for New Zealand's ANZUS obligations.)

The foremost complication was the new leader, David Lange. Just weeks into the job, in March 1983, he ruminated aloud to an American Chamber of Commerce in New Zealand lunch that he saw things differently from his party. For him, nuclear power could be separated from nuclear weapons. But not by the Labour Party he soon had to ruefully acknowledge! Even after Labour became the government, still the prime minister dithered. Not until late April 1985 did Lange commit his government to cementing in New Zealand's nuclear free standing. This story, and Lange's emergence as the champion of the nuclear free New Zealand, is elaborated in a chapter in a forthcoming book, New Zealand and the World. (3)

Helen Clark was in her prime educating Lange on the political realities of the Labour Party. But retribution came early to her. Following the July 1984 election victory, the Labour caucus heeded the parliamentary leadership, which had put the word out that they did not require her in the Cabinet--it was extraordinary for a New Zealand MP of such high calibre to be so side-lined. Had she then gone into the Cabinet the nuclear free stance may have been less assured: her preoccupation in a domestic portfolio (as she showed in Labour's second term) would have left the nuclear free cause with a less impressive leadership within the parliamentary party. …

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