Opinion: The case against Helen Clark

Helen Clark (Getty)
Helen Clark (Getty)

It seems the Māori Party has caused quite the stir.

You see, there's a competition underway for a really great job in New York.

Everybody's talking about it - even John Smith down at the local dairy.

That's because New Zealand has someone in the running. You've probably heard of her - former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

A formidable leader in her day. She delivered three terms in Government for the left, practically unheard of back then. Though the current outlook is so grim it would certainly be a miracle to see it again anytime soon.

Anyway, back to this really great job - the United Nations Secretary-General. The role is essentially a spokesman for the interests of the world's peoples, in particular the poor and vulnerable.

So, as you can imagine, it's a really big deal. It'll mean big things for New Zealand as well. We like being the centre of attention. We pride ourselves on our ability to punch above our weight. We were the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. We were the first to set foot atop of Mount Everest. And let's not forget our sporting achievements. Ever heard of Lydia Ko? The All Blacks? Lorde? Good old New Zealand, we're bloody world leaders, mate. So we're all behind our former Prime Minister, or Aunty Helen as she's affectionately known, for this really great job.

Well, actually, scratch that. It seems not everyone is cheering her on. Who the bloody hell is that, you might ask? Well, it's one of our very own political parties.

They're in coalition with the Government in fact. Yes, the Māori Party has said "yeah, nah" to Aunty Helen. You see, as much as we like to celebrate our achievements, there are some parts of New Zealand history that aren't filled with rugby balls and buzzy bees. Things that didn't unify us as a nation or have us cheer each other on.

But rather things which caused deep divide and resentment towards one another.

When Helen Clark was Prime Minister she made mistakes. These mistakes cost the indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand their rights. In 2004, Ms Clark introduced the Foreshore and Seabed Act. It removed the right of iwi to claim legal ownership of New Zealand beaches through the courts. She introduced the legislation with great haste in response to a ruling by the Court of Appeal.

It found legislation cited by the High Court did not extinguish Māori customary property rights in the seabed or foreshore. The Court of Appeal ruled that iwi could take a case to the Māori Land Court. Despite this, Ms Clark decided to override the ruling. Protest broke out across the country and thousands of Māori and non-Māori marched to the steps of Parliament. She did not come out to address the crowd, instead labelling them as "haters and wreckers". She did however pose for a nice photo with a sheep named Shrek. That was one to remember.

A year later a committee of the United Nations - the organisation of which Ms Clark is vying for this great new job – issued a report stating that the foreshore and seabed legislation discriminated against Māori.

In a move that would change New Zealand's political landscape, one of her MPs exited her ranks in protest over the issue. This MP would later become one of the founding members of the Māori Party - remember they're the ones saying "yeah, nah" to Aunty Helen in her bid for this great job.

The Māori Party were later voted in to Parliament where they revoked that same Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Ms Clark did not ever apologise to Māori over the issue and has stood by her decision to introduce the law. In fact, just three years ago, current Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson called on Ms Clark to make amends with Māori over her mistake. It never happened.

Three years after the foreshore and seabed, in 2007, a small Māori community was the subject of an appalling raid that would later be labelled by the Independent Police Conduct Authority as "unlawful, unjustified and unreasonable". The armed offenders squad stormed the community. Children were terrorised, elderly stripped of their dignity, and a community was tarnished across the country. The raid was launched under the newly minted Terrorism Suppression Act. The invasion resulted in a few firearms charges. Meanwhile a community was left broken. And while there have been many apologies since, albeit drawn out, not one word of remorse came from the Prime Minister at the time. Helen Clark signed off on the raids.

The fact is Ms Clark's record on indigenous rights in New Zealand is flawed. In her time as Prime Minister, she also rejected the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Following her time in politics, Ms Clark took up a role with the United Nations.

She is the Administrator of the UN Development Programme. She has proved successful in this role and was reappointed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013.

But while Ms Clark has shown hope that she has learned from her past mistakes through her current work with the UN - that does not diminish the work she failed to do as Prime Minister. Learning from your mistakes is one thing, but taking responsibility for them is every bit as important. In the eyes of many Māori, Helen Clark has not done that.

The relationship has not been mended. The Māori Party is reflecting this in their position. They are standing up for the most vulnerable, those who were wronged through these events. That is the role Helen Clark is vying for - to be a voice for the world's peoples, but in particular for the poor and vulnerable.

If the Māori Party holding Helen Clark to account over her previous actions puts a blemish on her bid for this great job, who actually needs to apologise?

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