A few weeks back Brigid and I sat in a restaurant on Hong Kong’s peak with a few friends. One of these, Felix, had brought his dad, Kevin, along.
His dad was an enormously successful importer/exporter out of and into Hong Kong. We talked and we laughed a fair bit and I enjoyed his company.
After a while he asked where we came from. New Zealand I answered, explaining that we were Asian based expats.
You must be enormously proud of your Prime Minister, said Kevin.
I explained that proud was not really the right word – well yes, it was a word I’d use, as below but perhaps supportive and grateful were more appropriate words.
Supportive because I generally agreed with both her philosophies and policies. And grateful because of the enormous strides the industry I’d been involved in had been able to take over the past decade as a direct result of her active personal input in furthering the industry. Last month there were, in one week, 13 New Zealand albums in the NZ Top 40. That would have been unthinkable if we’d had a continuation of National’s arts policies of the 1990s.
Kevin seemed an unlikely fan though – he was a very conservative aging businessman, the sort of person you’d assume would support the right. So I queried his opinion.
His opinion of Ms. Clark, he said, was based on how she was perceived outside her home country. Kevin explained that New Zealand’s mighty, and much improved in recent years, reputation, at least in the Asia-Pacific region, rested in no small part upon the way she was perceived. As honest, decent, clean and principled. And, importantly, independent.
It’s hard to overstate how positively New Zealand is viewed beyond it’s shores and it, too, is hard to overstate the role Helen Clark has in that perception. It wasn’t always so. Before 2000 we were seen as pretty much a US satellite state. Clean though.
As a non-resident New Zealander I feel a little, no that’s silly, more than that, quite a bit, saddened by the end of the Clark era. She’s someone who, and I think my opinion is echoed by most New Zealanders I meet offshore, that does give me some pride. Taxi drivers around Asia ask where I’m from – they either respond to my answer with “Kia Ora!” or a thumbs up “Helen Clark!”.
She has substantial international mana and I’m pretty sure John Key, who from a distance looks like a personality free zone (an opinion emphasized by his pathetic leap onto Obama both before the election and in his victory speech – does he have his own personality or simply borrow?), will be lucky to achieve same level of respect beyond the nation’s shores. And of course that respect translates back to New Zealand’s standing.
This election, in an odd way also changes, ever so slightly, my feelings for my home country. In the last few years, since I left NZ, I’m finding some parts of it harder and harder to relate to and this change unfortunately confirms that distance.
I don’t quite get the bile that’s infested parts of the political landscape of NZ, such as the rampant hate of many of the right wing blogs and those that inhabit them. Or the likes if the wacko fringe like Ian Wishart or Lindsey Perigo. Maybe I missed it before, but did we always have these nutters? Maybe we did, but before the net came along they simply festered and hung out at dusty halls shouting slogans at candidates before the police rustled them off. Now they get an audience and the festering – with awful slogans like Helengrad and Liarbor –finds bizarre currency. Or they wail endlessly about corruption, without having any idea of what corruption actually means to the kids in third world countries who spend years studying and passing exams but are unable to get the paperwork to prove it because their parents can’t afford to bribe the teacher and headmaster – that’s corruption, not the signing of a picture or not, or a hundred other nothing things that’ve been thrown at Helen Clark.
This, despite the fact that both her, and her unfairly maligned husband are amongst the most dedicated and profoundly decent people I’ve met, in or out of politics. The need to slur them, and god, haven’t they been slurred, says more about the sludge who make the slurs that the targets.
Today the sludge won and I really don’t know if I want any part of it.
Myself, I think history, and we need to wait a few years, for this will view the last Labour Government, but in particular its leader as era-defining. Someone said she’s of the ages, which is a little tough – she is after all, still alive – but there is validity, and history will agree, in the statement’s intent.
The old cliché about a country getting the government they deserve has been tossed around a fair bit in recent hours and I can’t help but concur. Maybe it’s time for the gray, mediocre drones to have their turn. But they surely reflect a side of New Zealand that I don’t miss or crave.
Thank you Helen.