New Zealand vote measures global credentials

The Nov. 27 election between PM Jenny Shipley and challenger HelenClark is close.

New Zealanders have always looked to the outside world - it's the Kiwi way.

International connections mean a lot in this South Pacific nation of 3.8 million inhabitants, more than a third of whom use a passport for some form of overseas experience. But for the first time antipodean politics have also pleasantly gotten the travel bug - with leaders of both of the country's major parties stressing their global bona fides in the run-up to a national election Nov. 27.

Foreign affairs have already counted for a lot in 1999. In addition to hosting last month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, New Zealand also, for the first time since the Vietnam War, committed nearly 900 troops to serve abroad as peacekeepers in East Timor.

With relatively few policy differences separating their respective parties - and with polls placing them neck and neck in the leadership race - Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and opposition Labour Party leader Helen Clark appear intent on outdoing each other in hawking their internationalist credentials.

Not everyone appreciates the theme. "I find it a little embarrassing," offers Russell Brown, a liberal columnist. "It makes us look like a nation of bumpkins."

Mrs. Shipley celebrates her relatively humble beginnings as a farmer's wife and mother of two, who, having gone on in her official capacity to roam the bigger world, now wants to take the nation with her. Ms. Clark, who entered politics in the 1970s as a feminist and activist in the anti-Vietnam War movement, prefers the role of been-there-done-that internationalist.

For Shipley, leader of the conservative National Party government, the place to snuggle up to is the United States. Over recent months, her party has issued a blizzard of media statements emphasizing the renewed warmth between the two nations. Adding to the apparent air of good feeling was a state visit by President Clinton to the recent APEC meeting in Auckland.

Mr. Clinton evidently tantalized Shipley when he promised to "think about" a proposed free-trade accord among his own nation, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Chile. Such a trading relationship - unlikely though it may be - fits in well with the National Party's plans to fashion agrarian New Zealand into a self-styled "knowledge economy," using Silicon Valley as a model.

"If I may borrow the president's words," Shipley tells voters, "New Zealand [is] indeed an 'enchanted place' where anything can happen."

Clark's centrist Labour Party thinks more or less the same, although her point of cultural reference belongs on the other side of the Atlantic. A photograph in her parliamentary office, taken a few years ago, shows her with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Clark makes no apology for her party's strategy based on the British Labour Party's successful run for office in 1997. "I've followed very closely what they've done," she says. "I think that what their approach did was help us focus our own campaign."

If elected prime minister, Clark talks about the possibility of edging her way into the informal policy discussions that take place infrequently between Mr. Blair and Clinton, with New Zealand providing fresh input.

"That's where New Zealand belongs," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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