Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has a message for female Liberal MPs who say they have been bullied by their male colleagues — and it’s not one they would necessarily like to hear.
- Former PM urges women politicians to hang on and build support networks
- Says lack of money can hold female politicians back
- Is impressed by Jacinda Ardern, who is sending an ‘important signal’ as mother and PM
Ms Clark, who made it all the way to the top in the male-dominated world of New Zealand politics, told News Breakfast the Kiwi Parliament was a pretty rough place when she started out in 1981.
“I had to toughen up fast, because it wasn’t for the faint-hearted, actually being a junior member of my party caucus … and I was seen as being on the more radical feminist end of it,” she said.
“That wasn’t so easy either in those terms, so you had to be very resilient.
“And any women who goes right near the top, like Julie Bishop did, they’ve got to be pretty strong.”
It is pretty striking advice from a woman who spent nearly 30 years in politics and is seen, justifiably, as a champion of female empowerment.
So I asked Ms Clark whether she was essentially telling the aggrieved Liberal MPs to “harden up”.
“Oh, just hang on in there and build the networks of support which will enable you to persevere,” she advised.
“I came in for a lot of knocks in my career, but I always had a strong circle of friends, supporters and family who said, ‘Keep going, keep standing there, you’re going to make it one day.’
“You really need that personal support.”
‘Lack of money can hold women back’
The former Prime Minister has just published a book of speeches, the theme of which is given away by the title: “Women, Equality, Power”.
In speech after speech, Ms Clark points to the gender imbalance in politics and highlights the many structural barriers preventing more women rising to leadership positions.
She said in some countries there was in-built prejudice against women taking on positions of authority. She also wants women to be more supportive of other women aspiring to political leadership.
Some of the other challenges are much more basic.
“Often it can be money, in many countries where candidates have to raise their own finance, and the old girls networks are never as well-held as the old boys networks.”
One female leader she is very impressed with is the current New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern.
“She’s shattering all kinds of glass ceilings and I think for younger women it’s very exciting to see Jacinda becoming a mother and having a high-powered career,” she said.
“It gives them hope that they can combine family and career, which is such an important signal.”
As for the turmoil engulfing Australian politics more generally, Ms Clark, like most New Zealanders, has been watching on with bemusement.
Her successor as PM, John Key, once famously quipped he was always excited to meet his Australian counterpart because he never knew who would show up.
Ms Clark, who also spent eight years in a top post at the United Nations, chooses diplomacy.
“I think as a Kiwi it’s important not to be sanctimonious about it, because I remember periods where our politics was very much like that,” she said.
“Whether it helps or not is a moot point. But let’s hope it settles down for the interests of Australia.”