Helen, our lost leader

The end of an era came this week when the millionaire merchant banker John Key was sworn in as New Zealand's 38th prime minister. His centre-right National party had won a resounding victory over the longstanding Labour government. That also sadly meant the end to the reign of one of the country's most successful leaders, Helen Clark, who then resigned as head of the party.

With all that is going on in the world, it is easy to think that peaceful regime change in a country with a population the size of the East Midlands, in the middle of an ocean 12,000 miles from here, isn't exactly vital. (Which may explain why the election hardly got a mention in the British press.) But Helen Clark was a different kind of politician from any New Zealand had seen before - and as an expatriate I know I am not alone in feeling unusually proud of her achievements and sad to see her go.

During her nine years in power, Helen (as the 58-year-old was called by those who loved or reviled her) was a "third way" social democrat, aiming to flatten some of the more glaring inequalities in the country's so-called egalatarian society by introducing a 39% top-tax rate and family tax credits, taking interest off student loans and increasing subsidised healthcare. She revived ailing services like Air New Zealand and the railways by returning them to state ownership, and she made waves in the US when she insisted that New Zealand waters remain free of nuclear-powered vessels.

Like Tony Blair (whose Labour party preceded Helen's to power by two years) she was tasked with bringing together a party with deep ideological divisions. On top of that, in 1996 New Zealand had changed from first past the post to mixed member proportional voting so in each of her governments she had to negotiate constantly with small, often badly behaved parties from the margins.

Her former press officer, Mike Munro, said: "From day one she did an amazing job - there were some fairly feral characters in the Alliance." There were also plenty of controversial MPs in her own party, accused of everything from drink-driving and sexual misconduct to bribery and corruption. Her standards of ministerial accountability were tough, but as Munro put it: "She made sure they were all brought into the tent."

From a farming family in the Waikato, Helen was resolutely down to earth and - in the Kiwi vernacular - not at all "flash". She followed the footie (rugby), liked pop music, and went climbing and walking whenever she got any spare time. As the late Sir Edmund Hillary said of her: "She's always off climbing something, doing something exciting and I think that New Zealanders admire that."

But there were some things about Helen they never felt comfortable with. Her deep voice, her wardrobe of serviceable trouser suits, and her childless marriage to sociologist Peter Davis all brought their share of snide media comment. This didn't seem to bother her much; she was no emotional chin wobbler. But as one media commentator pointed out: "Bossy women aren't much liked or trusted in New Zealand."

Columnist Chris Trotter in the Sunday Star Times went so far as to attribute the election result to ingrained sexism: "It was the men who just couldn't cope with the idea of being led by an intelligent, idealistic, free-spirited woman; the gutless, witless, passionless creatures of the barbecue-pit and the sports bar (and the feckless females who put up with them) who voted Helen Clark out of office."

Others see the election as the result of boredom. The country has, so far, been relatively free of the economic maelstrom that the rest of us are experiencing. But rather than stick with the partnership of Helen and finance minister Dr Michael Cullen that had led to stability and the high living standards New Zealanders enjoy, all the pre-election talk was of the need for "change".

I first met Helen in 1975. I was a first-year at the University of Auckland; she was my political science tutor. She was then as she turned out to be later: informal, plain speaking, occasionally droll, determined and committed. Only six years later she was elected to represent the middle-class Auckland suburb of Mt Albert, a seat she still holds.

The next time I met her was in New Zealand House in London, where she had attended the premiere of Niki Caro's film Whale Rider. All through her government she was also the minister for arts and culture. Not everyone in that particular world felt her reign was beneficial, but generally she was seen as firm but fair, a politician you could talk to.

Just before the election she attended the NZ Music Awards to give out a prize - but it was her appearance that got the standing ovation. From a room full of popular musos, after nine years in office, that says something about Helen. And I can't imagine any British prime minister ever pulling it off.

Louise Chunn