Manufacturing Clark’s history

Helen Clark does so like to re-visit and re-edit her history, aided and abetted by an unquestioning and ill-informed media.

She has recently given a nice soft cosy interview to Channel Nine in Australia where this claim was made:

Having led the Labour Party without barely a whisper of a coup for six years in opposition and then nine years as Prime Minister, human resources at the UN could hardly argue that credential.

Oh rly?

Is that what she told the hapless Channel Nine reporter? I don’t see where he’d have got it from otherwise… he wouldn’t have the background knowledge of NZ politics.

And then Fairfax repeat it unquestioningly… probably because there isn’t anyone there who’s older than 12.

I’m sure readers don’t really need reminding, but if you do:

Fifteen years ago, Helen Clark stared down a party coup mounted by her eventual successor, Phil Goff. But her victory came at a huge price for Labour.?Phil Quin, one of the plotters, offers an insider’s account.

About six weeks before Helen Clark finally cemented her grip on NZ Labour – one which she maintains to this day, even in absentia – I had finally convinced Phil Goff to topple her.


The key to toppling Clark was flipping six or so of her former supporters, and the early signs were encouraging: Paul Swain (Eastern Hutt), Mark Peck (Invercargill), Rick Barker (Hastings) and Martin Gallagher (Hamilton West), all of whom backed Clark over Moore in 1993, were ready to jump ship.

Peck and Barker soon emerged as key protagonists in the efforts to unseat her. Phillip Field (Otara) was also wavering, and we suspected a number of others – Janet Mackey (Gisborne), Chris Carter (Te Atatu) and even the sopping-wet John Blincoe (Nelson) – might succumb to fears over their own seats and cast their secret ballots against Clark.

“Phil, I need to tell people you’re in,” I told Goff during our Easter weekend call, perhaps for the hundredth time. “OK then, I’ll do it,” he said, without a hint of enthusiasm.

The challenge against Clark shifted into top gear. Frontbenchers Michael Cullen, Jim Sutton and Annette King took command of strategy along with Goff, while Peck and Barker worked the backbench. Meanwhile, I oversaw phone surveys under the fictional auspices of “Data Research” in places where we felt the MP might be swayed by proof that Clark was toxic with voters.

Chris Carter’s numbers were so bad he thought I had made them up. “Nope,” I told him, “Helen is leading you over a cliff.”

Sutton, Cullen and King were nervous about promoting the largely unknown Goff so close to the election, and also feared the electorate might recoil from his hardline reputation as a Rogernomics-era Minister.

At the same time, a couple of Maori seat MPs were willing to vote against Clark – but for Moore, not Goff.

In a caucus of 41 we counted 18-all with five undecided. Every vote weighed a tonne. The decision was made to proceed with an ambivalent Mike Moore on the ballot. Goff, it has to be said, was noticeably relieved.


the entire exercise was derailed almost single-handedly by Anne Collins, Michael Cullen’s wife and a former MP, who loudly told Clark’s chief of staff during the Congress dinner that it was time to pack her bags.

The second decisive call made by the coup generals was to avoid a straightforward leadership vote. Peck, Barker and I argued that ballot secrecy was a huge strategic advantage for us – allowing nervous MPs like Carter and Field to vote self-interest over factional allegiance – but we were overruled again. A 21-20 outcome either way was, by their reckoning, the worst possible outcome. Clark should be given the chance to exit with dignity.

Former Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton drafted a letter urging Clark to stand down. It circulated among the caucus, attracting around 17 signatures, including that of Janet Mackey who, swayed by Clark ally Pete Hodgson, later attempted to recant. (My precise recollection of the number of signatories is hazy, although I believe the original letter, which was never handed to Clark, remains in Goff’s possession).

On May 27 1996, a delegation of Labour frontbenchers – Cullen, Sutton, Koro Wetere, King and Goff – met Clark to ask that she act in the party’s best interests by stepping aside.

Clark was in the loop by then, and corralled several of her key supporters, including Maharey, Jonathan Hunt and Judith Tizard to stare down her critics.

She didn’t blink or budge. Bring it on, went the message, loud and clear.

In a stroke of genius, Clark persuaded her deputy, David Caygill, to make way for Michael Cullen, a key Moore backer, whose personal ambition, she correctly surmised, would outgun his factional loyalties.

This threw the challenge into disarray. Undecided MPs went to ground as Cullen emerged as an unlikely advocate for the status quo.

Coup d’etat, meet coup de grace. Twenty-one votes was suddenly beyond reach. It was over.

Clark had survived.