Helen Clark


Jenny Shipley may have been our first female PM, but Helen Clark was the first woman to become PM following an election. By 2008 she was our fifth longest-serving PM and the first Labour leader to win three consecutive elections.

Clark came from a National-leaning rural family but developed her politics while studying and lecturing in political science at the University of Auckland. She won the Mount Albert seat in 1981. Clark served as a minister during Labour’s second term from 1987 and became deputy PM two years later, benefiting from working smoothly with the party machinery. In 1996, three years after ousting Mike Moore, she polled so badly that a coup was attempted, but she stayed, survived, succeeded. Labour won handsomely in 1999.

Underpinned by her deputy, Michael Cullen, and chief of staff, Heather Simpson, Clark re-centred policy, softening but not overturning the fundamentals of ‘Rogernomics’ (neo-liberal economics). Labour made some trade union and civil rights reforms, dropped titular honours and established a new Supreme Court. Clark, who climbed mountains on holiday, softened her austere style and even modelled a costume in the World of WearableArt awards.

Clark, sometimes compared to Peter Fraser, shared his mastery of international relations and his belief that culture shapes national identity. As minister of arts, culture and heritage, she increased arts funding and raised the profile of our military heritage.

Helped by a strong economy and a weak opposition, Labour was initially competent and disciplined. It crushed National in 2002, but the opposition recovered and ran the government close in 2005. Although Clark still rated highly, public impatience with some domestic policies, minor crises and natural voter attrition denied her a fourth term. She announced her resignation as leader on election night 2008 and early in 2009 left for New York to head the United Nations Development Programme, a role she held until 2017. In 2016 she stood unsuccessfully for the position of secretary-general of the UN.

By Gavin McLean

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Posted: 21 Apr 2023

I completely agree with the comment below and add
It is stated the Helen Clark was the first woman to be elected Prime Minister of New Zealand. While she formed and lead the 1999 coalition Government from 1999 the inference that she was elected in the 27/11/1999 General Election is misleading and deceptive. She was however elected as the Member of Parliament for Mount Albert at that time and as such became eligible to lead the Labour party in Parliament.

In New Zealand we elect Members of Parliament, the various Party caucuses elect their leaders. The general elections elect Parliamentarians not Prime Ministers. Helen Clark being the leader of the Labour Party in 1999, became Prime Minister with the support of the Alliance Party and The Greens. If it were caucus elections it would be true to state that Jenny Shipley was the first elected woman Prime Minister of New Zealand.

I would therefore respectfully suggest that the notation for Helen Clark be reworded along the lines of, Helen Clark being the Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party which gained the majority of electorate seats and party vote went on to form the Fifth Labour Government with the support of The Alliance Party and The Green party in 1999. This election was the first one in New Zealand's history where both main parties were led by women, being repeated again in the 2020 election.


Posted: 05 Aug 2016

Helen Clark was not elected PM - we don't elect our PMs in NZ. She was appointed by her party as leader, and is the first woman in NZ to lead her party to an election victory.
Her Wikipedia page has corrected this specious claim to pre-eminence as an "elected PM" - isn't it time this page was corrected?