Helen Clark: Former New Zealand leader’s gender rally cry

Former prime minister speaks Saturday at Victoria film-fest screening of her UN campaign

What: My Year with Helen
When: Saturday, June 23, 5 p.m.
Where: Vic Theatre, 808 Douglas St.
Tickets: Sold out

Helen Clark has been in hot demand the past few days.

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The former prime minister of New Zealand was in Edmonton last week to pick up an honorary degree from the University of Alberta. She’s in Victoria today to speak at the Victoria Film Festival screening of My Year with Helen, a documentary about her campaign to become secretary-general of the United Nations.

And, in between, she’s giving endless interviews about the big news back home, where current prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, had a baby this week.

Clark said on Thursday that she had been up most of the previous night commenting on the birth and its significance.

“Firstly, it’s a lovely story,” she said. “I mean, here we are with these most terrible things going on in the world and the New Zealand prime minister has a baby, and people in New Zealand are very excited about this.

“Of course, you get normal naysayers, but overwhelmingly, there is just incredible goodwill towards her. People say: ‘Well, good on her. She’s showing that you can do both.’ ”

Clark said she has been putting in a word, too, for Ardern’s partner, Clarke Gayford, a television personality who plans to be a stay-at-home dad.

“This is a very modern couple, so it’s sending a lot of messages about gender equality, about men and women taking on similar roles, not having gender stereotyping,” she said. “It’s breaking many barriers and I think that’s what people find really quite exciting.”

Clark knows a few things about breaking barriers herself, having served as New Zealand’s second female prime minister from 1999 to 2008.

“When I was sort of making my way up through the system, you still had people saying: ‘Oh, a woman will never do that job. They’ll never succeed at that.’

“And you had to break through all that.”

She did, of course, and today, New Zealand seems decades ahead of many nations, having had a female prime minister for about half the past 21 years.

“In New Zealand, we’re used to this,” she said. “People don’t see it as any kind of issue. It’s going to happen in the normal course of events.”

It’s quite a different story at the United Nations, which has never had a female secretary-general in its 73-year history.

“It is one of the remaining bastions where women have yet to break through decisively,” said Clark, who served as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme for eight years

Her struggle to crack that glass ceiling is one of the storylines of My Year with Helen by documentary filmmaker Gaylene Preston.

Clark fell short in her bid to become secretary-general in 2016, a short time before Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become president of the United States.

Clark admitted that after the UN process concluded, she felt a sense of “foreboding” about the U.S. election.

“Look, here was Hillary Clinton who was clearly very well-qualified to be president of the United States of America. But you started to get a feeling that not everybody thought that a woman should be doing this job. It went beyond normal partisanship.”

Clark said both those events took her back more than 30 years in New Zealand, and, as Preston’s documentary reinforces, made clear that the battle is far from over.

“It’s not yet won,” she said. “So the film is a bit of a rallying cry to say: ‘You’ll have to keep pushing.’ ”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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