Whether she’s running for office or scaling Kilimanjaro, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark relies on the same resources: stamina, staying power and the ability to plan for the long run.
So far, they’ve served her well. Raised in a weathly farm family outside Hamilton, she took an early interest in politics, and became fully committed during her university years in Auckland. She joined the Labour Party in 1971 and has been rising through the ranks ever since. In 1999, she became the first woman elected Prime Minister.
She’s known for her dedication to the arts, health issues and all things green.
At the helm of a country with women in many of the leading positions, from attorney general to president of the country’s largest private corporation, Clark credits recent strides to a move to a proportional electoral system that requires parties to represent broader constituencies.
“Prior to the system, we’d reached a level of 20 percent women in Parliament, which I guess by U.S. standards is quite high, but it’s really not high by Northern European standards,” she said. “We’re now up to over 30 percent. And it still needs to go somewhere yet.”
She appointed herself Minister for Culture and Heritage, and is recognized for nurturing the arts. “I think that through the arts and culture, you express the soul and heart of your nation.”
The PM figures the arts are a way to get the word out about NZ, which she regards, in some respects, as a bit of a hidden treasure…at least for those on the other side of the globe.
‘I don’t really think people in the States have much idea about New Zealand at all,” she says. They have this vague notion it’s a pretty place they’d like to visit someday, but never make it. “They don’t think of New Zealand as a producer of the highest quality software, electronics, high fashion, beautiful music.”
Part of the trouble is Kiwis’ aversion to pretense, a phenomenon dubbed the “Tall Poppy” syndrome that compels New Zealanders to promptly hack down anything or anyone who appears to be boasting or garnering excessive praise.
When she’s not administering to affairs of state, the PM, a fitness fan, can often be found in the bush, enjoying New Zealand’s dazzling natural beauty.
Her plans for the future? “Keep climbing — metaphorically and physically.”
From the Interview
“New Zealanders are very practical people. They are do-it-their-selfers. They are weekend mechanics. You’ve got the strong farming industry background where people did it themselves, fixed it themselves. People made do often with very little. So that’s pretty deeply ingrained in the culture.”
“…we’ve got it all in terms of lifestyle, physical environment, cosmopolitan cities, great arts and culture…you could have a wonderful life here in New Zealand, but somehow, to the Kiwis, often the grass seems greener on the other side of the peaks.”
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