New Zealand Politics: a Woman's Place

New prime minister and opposition leader are women, but similarities end there.

Even though New Zealand is not required to hold a general election until late 1999, the announcement this week that, at month's end, Transport Minister Jenny Shipley will become the country's new - and first - woman prime minister virtually ensures that New Zealand politics will not be the same-old same-old.

The fact that the leader of the opposition Labor Party is also a woman, Helen Clark, means that the political fight for the heart and soul of the country will for the first time be waged between two women.

"It's not going to be so much a tale of two cities," quipped one caller to a radio talk show this week, "but a tale of two women."

Although both women enthusiastically identify themselves as feminists, any similarity between them - and their respective definitions of feminism - ends right there.

Labor's Helen Clark is a feminist's feminist, whose doughty personal style and policies would not be amiss in the left-wing reaches of the US Democratic Party.

Prime Minister-designate Shipley, called by some "New Zealand's Margaret Thatcher," describes herself as a feminist, too - but her flinty style can be less than orthodox or academic, as visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott discovered when he arrived here for talks with her predecessor on Monday.

On midday Monday, with Mr. Talbott already in Wellington for talks with the man he assumed to be prime minister, Jim Bolger, Mrs. Shipley delivered a message to Mr. Bolger telling him on behalf of his parliamentary colleagues that his seven years as parliamentary leader were over.

After completing his official business with the Americans, a clearly saddened Bolger announced his resignation, saying that he will officially leave after attending the coming APEC leaders' meeting in Canada and a brief visit to China later this month.

Not since New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant its female citizens the vote in 1893 have competing perceptions of women loomed so large on the political landscape of this South Pacific nation of 3.7 million inhabitants.

As the new prime minister and leader of the ruling conservative National Party, Shipley becomes the country's first-ever female premier, with New Zealand the only nation in the world right now where both major parliamentary parties are led by women.

Opposition head

Clark has been leader of the country's opposition Labor Party since 1993.

According to recent polls, the popular Ms. Clark had been set to lead her party to an easy victory in the next general election. Labor Party strategists say until now, her feminine image has been central to her popularity, with one poll suggesting that Clark's "softness" adds credibility to her center-left party's claims to speak for the poor and downtrodden, particularly among women.

But Clark's personal life is unlike Shipley's. Her background is solidly urban and professional. A former political science university lecturer from Auckland, the country's largest city, she chose not to have children in favor of pursuing personal political ambitions that were nurtured in the left-wing idealism of the early women's movement of the 1960s.

Rural, welfare background

Shipley was born in the rural hinterlands of New Zealand's South Island, near the townships of Gore and Clinton - names that would amuse her political opponents today.

Her father, a Methodist preacher, died when she was a teenager, and her mother raised her and three sisters on a state widow's pension.

Shipley scraped through exams at high school and never went on to university, though she trained to be a high school teacher.

Today she owns a small farm with her husband, Burton Shipley. They have two adult children.

"I grew up a feminist," she says today. "I was one of four girls, and it came as a shock to me to later discover that the world wasn't an even place. My parents raised us to function as equal citizens, and, mistakenly, led us to the view that this was possible to do."

She entered national politics 10 years ago determined, she says, to halt, and reverse, the kinds of welfare politics that she readily admits sustained her own family through its own dark years.

In 1993, as minister of social welfare, she oversaw some of the most radical cuts to welfare payments since New Zealand first devised its cradle-to-the-grave welfare system in the 1930s. Her success as social-welfare minister elevated her to a position as a possible successor to outgoing Prime Minister Bolger.

It also earned her the enmity of parliamentary opponents, such as Clark, who says Shipley's economic views are "outrageous," particularly with regard to their effect on women.

"I'm certainly a feminist, and I always have been," New Zealand's new prime minister counters. "But, you see, I think that this notion of feminist politics having to be left wing is wrong. Feminism, for me, means that I want people to have an equal opportunity to be who they are."

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