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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Ask NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark
Helen Clark, the outspoken prime minister of New Zealand answered your questions in a special edition of Talking Point.

She opposed the war on Iraq, warning Britain and the US that they may live to regret the decision to take military action.

She believes the jury is still out on whether the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction.

She has also campaigned for an end to EU and US trade barriers that hit poor farmers in the developing world.

Under her leadership, New Zealand has pursued a series of controversial measures from voting to legalise prostitution to enforcing a ban on nuclear warships from the country's ports.


Transcript


Bridget Kendall:

Welcome to Talking Point. I'm Bridget Kendall and my guest today is Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq and a well known campaigner on global trade barriers, especially from Europe and the United States. She's also no stranger to controversy at home - under her leadership New Zealand has pursued a series of groundbreaking measures, for instance a recent decision to legalise prostitution.

She's here in London for a gathering of world leaders from centre left parties and she's kindly taken time out to come to our studio. Welcome Helen Clark.

I wanted to start with the issue which certainly here in Britain is very much on people's minds and that's the war in Iraq. Your criticism of the decision to go to war without UN approval is well known. But the big question that people here in the UK and increasingly in the US are asking are where are those weapons of mass destruction, why haven't they been found and does it matter if they've not been found? What's your view on that?


Helen Clark:

I've noted that there's very intense white heat political debate about it here, to some extent we're bystanders to that because we weren't participants in the war. We weren't participants because we knew there was a disarmament inspection diplomatic process in place and we felt that the better long-term results with an international crisis are achieved if you let those processes work through.

They, I believe, could have got to the bottom of - were there programmes, were there weapons. What we know is there were lot of outstanding questions from the time that previous inspectors had left and the Iraqis have never been particularly forthcoming in answering questions about weapons programs. But the way the process was curtailed of course meant that there couldn't be an orderly resolution to the crisis.


Bridget Kendall:

So although there's a bit of white heat in your direction when you were critical earlier, do you now feel that perhaps you were on the right side of the argument?


Helen Clark:

I'm absolutely convinced we were right to stick to process. This matters a great deal for small countries. Small countries don't have military might, they're very dependent on the international rule of law, multilateral decision-making. And as New Zealanders, we've been in on the United Nations from the very beginning, played a role in the drafting of the charter - it means a lot to us that those processes are followed.


Bridget Kendall:

We've got an e-mail from Kampala in Uganda from Papa Paluku, who wanted to ask you about this. "What do you think will be the opinion of the people in the world if there's no clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction?"


Helen Clark:

Well I think most people thought that the diplomatic and inspection process should have been allowed to run. So that's the general mindset. Now if there are not then programmes discovered, weapons discovered then that reinforces the view most people had about whether the world should have gone down a path of war.


Bridget Kendall:

We've got a caller on the line from Denmark. It's Srinivasan Toft, who is in and you're on the line now. What would you like to ask?


Srinivasan Toft:

Hello. Madam I would like to ask you, you are going to meet Mr Blair since you're in London, then would you ask him how is it to be a so-called left party, the Labour Party, in England with the support he has with the conservative government in the USA in support of the war?


Helen Clark:

Well firstly I have known Tony Blair for many years, I regard him as a very close political friend. I lead a Labour government, he leads a Labour government. What I also understand about Britain is that the relationship with the United States, the transatlantic relationship, carries a very, very high priority and has for all governments of whatever shade. So Mr Blair and his government are going to have to judge how they run their relationship with the US across political boundaries because we have a conservative administration in the US, not a democratic (sic) one.

But I don't really want to get into the debate about how Britain conducts its foreign relations except to say that throughout the whole sorry, sad and distressing business with the Iraq affair we have established a different position from the British government on the war but one that has been treated with great respect by Britain, as we have treated their position with respect.


Bridget Kendall:

But what it seems as though Srinivasan was getting at is that you're here for a meeting of centre left parties, of which Tony Blair is the host, and yet here he is the closest ally of a conservative Republican government in the United States, especially on this issue of the war. Isn't that going to make for a rather uncomfortable weekend?


Helen Clark:

I think what that tells us is that irrespective of the political colour of administrations in London and Washington there will be a very close relationship between the two capitals. And maybe that's the way international relations are. If you take a local position, in New Zealand we have a Labour government and Australia there's a Conservative government. At the level of prime ministers the relationship is very, very good indeed and that's the way it has to be.


Bridget Kendall:

We've got an e-mail about that from Mirek Kondracki, in Washington, USA who says: "Why is New Zealand so anti-American when adjacent Australia is quite the opposite?


Helen Clark:

Well of course New Zealand isn't anti-American. But what New Zealand is, is a sovereign country which makes its own decisions about the political positions it will adopt internationally. And on the question of the Iraq war, backed by the great majority of New Zealand people, we determined that multilateralism in processes were the most important thing to us.


Bridget Kendall:

Well for our next caller let's go to the United States and Kate Miller who's in Chicago, Illinois. Kate Miller what would you like to ask?


Kate Miller:

Good morning Prime Minister Clark. Your views on the Bush administration are a breath of fresh air to all of us - at least in my opinion. May my family and I emigrate to your beautiful country and claim and cultural and political asylum?


Helen Clark:

Well what I can tell you is that New Zealand is a country which has an annual migration quota of 45,000 new migrants and of course we welcome Americans among them. Indeed we're just reorienting our immigration policy at the moment, so that it's very skilled-focused and we're very mindful, that particularly on the West coast of the States with a lifestyle not dissimilar to New Zealand, there just might be people looking for somewhere quieter to live and bring skills. So feel free to apply.


Bridget Kendall:

This is an e-mail we've had from Spain, from Almeria from Chernor Jalloh, who says: "You said that Britain and the US may live to regret going to war with Iraq - do you really think that your predictions will come true?"


Helen Clark:

I think he's taking that quote off a Guardian article which I had some dispute with the Guardian about taking what one says somewhat further than one ever intended. But history will be the judge of what happened in Iraq. My concern now is to try put a ring around the very serious international disagreement over it and look forward. What Iraqi people want is their sovereignty restored as quickly as possible and I think working between the UN coordinator, Mr De Mello, and the occupying authority on the ground, we really need to see now the concrete steps towards Iraqi self-government again.


Bridget Kendall:

The US Defence Secretary's been giving testimony in Congress in the US this week and they've made it clear that US troop levels there are high and they need to be high and they're very anxious to have other allies who'll help them. Are you prepared to get involved to that extent?


Helen Clark:

We're not getting involved with the security and stabilisation aspect of the work. What was very important for us was before we even got involved in reconstruction that there was an appropriate UN Security Council resolution, appropriate multilateral cover, that came in resolution 1483 on the 22nd May. And that welcomed, invited, urged member states to support the humanitarian relief effort, reconstruction and rehabilitation and also security and stabilisation work. But said other member states could do these things without themselves being considered an occupying power. That was very important to us as a non-participant of the war. On the basis of that we have been engaged with the British defence people on New Zealand having military engineers and to do some of that light reconstruction - basic electricity, water system - kind of work.


Bridget Kendall:

So a UN resolution that gives you cover. But I think you also said that the UN must have a vital role in Iraq, do you consider it is? At the moment it looks as though it's the authority - the occupying powers - who are very much running things.


Helen Clark:

It's a question of the transition because immediately after the war the occupying powers were there and they have certain responsibilities set out under Hague conventions and they are following those. But the next step was the UN Security Council resolution, getting Mr De Mello in as the coordinator. He'll be feeling his way, everything we hear is that the relationship he's established with Mr Bremer is a positive one. And I think we now need to see the steps of bringing together Iraqis who can start to plan for some kind of constitutional convention but similar really to the path that Afghanistan went on and you move towards the point where you can get to elections.


Bridget Kendall:

Let's go to another caller. And our next caller is here in London. Nagananda Kodituwakku who is on the line. What would you like to ask Helen Clark?


Nagananda Kodituwakku :

My question is, do you think that Blair and Bush, their case against the war in Iraq. Do you think their case is genuine?


Helen Clark:

Well I think that the case was twofold. One, there were a lot of unanswered questions from the period when the UNSCOM weapons inspectors were in - and they left in 1998 after a breakdown of communication and relationships with the Iraqi government. Now when UNMOVIC, under Mr Blix, went back in, the Iraqis still weren't terribly forthcoming and there was certainly very high levels of frustration internationally that the Iraqis cooperated in process but not so much in substance and Mr Blix made that clear.

Notwithstanding the frustration, notwithstanding that the Iraqis would have strained the tolerance of a saint, we still felt we had to keep the process working. But obviously others came to a different decision - they said we're sick of this, we're going to move now.

I think we also have to appreciate that September 11th was the first attack the Americans have ever had on the homeland of the US. You had Pearl Harbour which had triggered American involvement in the Second World War, a long time and a long way from Pearl Harbour and Hawaii to an attack at the heart of the US economic system on the World Trade Centre and then on the Pentagon itself. Now that, I believe, made the Americans very threat conscious, very security conscious and I think Iraq kind of got whacked up into that. And psychologically I understand that sense of pressure and sense of threat. It's just that we came to a different evaluation about what the significance of Iraq was.


Bridget Kendall:

Nagananda are you happy with that answer?


Nagananda Kodituwakku :

Yes and can I ask another question - the people of this country feel that they have been taken for a ride by the Prime Minister, that's the general feeling of the public.


Bridget Kendall:

Well that's your feeling anyway.


Nagananda Kodituwakku :

They think, the international community on the whole that the Prime Minister of this country and the US they have taken the international law for a ride. Do you agree?


Helen Clark:

I'm not sure I caught the very last part of the question.


Bridget Kendall:

The question is, I think, Nagananda he certainly feels that Mr Blair and Mr Bush have taken international law for a ride, was his way of putting it, do you agree with that?


Helen Clark:

On that precise question, the New Zealand government has not said that it regards what happened as unlawful. What we have said is that the most explicit legal foundation for an invasion of a country does come from the UN Security Council resolution but we haven't gotten to pronouncing the action unlawful.

As for the debate going on in Britain at the moment, all I'll say is that I believe that at absolutely every point Tony Blair was absolutely sincere and acting on the information that he believed was available to him. I think the longer term analysis will be looking at was the intelligence accurate, was there a lot of circumstantial evidence, how much was hard? But again trying to be as fair as possible about it as one can, one is conscious that the Iraqis weren't forthcoming with information and that in itself tends to breed suspicion about intentions and capabilities.


Bridget Kendall:

We've had an e-mail about the impact of this on New Zealand. This is from C. Whittfield in France who says: "Do you believe there will be a significant economic impact on New Zealand as a result of its public opposition to the US-led war in Iraq (either by sanctions or "backroom" exclusion)?"


Helen Clark:

No, not at all because throughout this New Zealand has taken a principled position. It hasn't set out to bag its oldest friends who took a different decision. It was quite an unusual situation because on one side of this debate you had Canada and New Zealand and on the other side you had Australia, Britain and the United States. Now as a group of five English speaking democracies, no group of countries could be closer, but they didn't agree on the issue. So I think that is generally respected and no I wouldn't expect New Zealand, as the smaller player in the group, to be in any way disadvantaged.


Bridget Kendall:

Do you mean you're hiding behind Canada?


Helen Clark:

Well I think that Canada was in a very similar position to New Zealand. Canada, like New Zealand, has been one of the foremost advocates of the United Nations, of multilateralism, of the charter and we find ourselves on very similar ground.


Bridget Kendall:

We've had another e-mail related to that from Oxford here in the UK from Sam who reminds us that New Zealand took a strong anti-nuclear stance under a previous prime minister, David Lange. Do you see this as a continued sticking point between New Zealand and the US, he asks, or is this now, the whole nuclear issue, a cold-war relic that doesn't have any effect on things like trade and defence relations?


Helen Clark:

The nuclear issue is still regarded by the US administration as unfinished business with New Zealand and they make no secret of the fact that they would prefer New Zealand not to have the policy. On the other hand, we reiterate that it's from our point of view an important policy. And it's interesting the thing about its relevance today because yes of course the decision to go nuclear free was taken at the height of the Cold War stand-off.

But today all countries are somewhat worried about proliferation of exactly weapons of mass destruction, of which nuclear have the foremost, and we're worried about the extent to which nuclear material is readily available. And in the year of the suicide bomber, you don't always need a sophisticated delivery device to get a weapon of mass destruction to cause tremendous devastation. So I think New Zealand approaches this whole issue of weapons of mass destruction, of disarmament, from a principled position and being prepared to stick its neck out to advocate against proliferation.


Bridget Kendall:

We've had another e-mail, actually on this same subject, this is A. Scott who's in Detroit in the USA, bringing up the whole question of North Korea. One of the countries which President Bush of course points to as being a reason why one does need a new strategic policy in the world in case a rogue state, rogue weapons get loose - this can be, as you said, it can be a threat to everybody. So, this is quite hypothetical but he asks: "What if North Korea were to test fire missiles over New Zealand tomorrow, what would be your response to that?"


Helen Clark:

To continue close collaboration with the international community to bring around a resolution of the Korean crisis, which by the way has been going rather a long time. I'm going to Korea in about two and a half weeks time for the 50th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War. There's never been a peace settlement in Korea. Korea has been one of the most dangerous places in the world, one of the possible trigger points for quite devastating war for a long, long time and we would like the crisis to be at an end. So I think any pressure people can bring to bear on North Korea to engage with the international community to resolve this is important. But it won't be governed by whether or not North Korea's a particular threat to New Zealand.


Bridget Kendall:

But the point behind that is surely quite important. Those who support what Mr Blair and Mr Bush have done in Iraq and other places would say it's all very well for New Zealand to criticise but you just said there if you were threatened by a country like North Korea you'd turn to close collaboration with allies. So don't you in some way rely on this new security policy which would protect not just Britain and America but it would protect everybody, yourselves included?


Helen Clark:

I don't think it's a question of close collaboration with allies. I think the issue of North Korea is one where the international community as a whole has to work to resolve the crisis. Our eyes have probably been averted from North Korea for quite a long time but it is an issue when the North Koreans finally confessed that they've broken the non-nuclear proliferation treaty obligations and have started developing a nuclear weapon, that is an issue. So it's not a question of whether any one of us is threatened, everyone's threatened if someone's trying to get nuclear weapons outside the international framework.


Bridget Kendall:

This is an e-mail that's come in from Brisbane in Australia, from Bryden Ellsman: "How come New Zealand sold its Air Force?"


Helen Clark:

Well Bryden, New Zealand hasn't sold its air force. New Zealand has the Royal New Zealand Air Force but what it doesn't have now is a jet strike force. It has a transport arm, it has helicopters, it has Hercules, it has 757, it also has Orion P3 surveillance planes. Why does it no longer have a strike air force? Frankly because we cannot afford it - it's a small country of four million with a limited taxpayer base to have all capabilities. We had the Sky Hawks, a rather old plane, for rather more than 30 years. They had never fired a shot in anger, they're old fashioned and the cost of updating them and getting a new modern plane was frankly excessive when we had other re-equipment needs across the board. So what we've done is rationalised what we spend on.


Bridget Kendall:

It's high time we went to another phone call and where better than New Zealand itself. This is from Richard Robbins who is in Auckland, Richard what would you like to ask the Prime Minister?


Richard Robbins:

Hello I'd just like to ask, at the time of - just before the war the New Zealand government stance was against the actual war itself, the Prime Minister played down at the time that the stance had any detrimental effect on any future agreements for dialogue, especially with the US. But does she feel that this has actually paid any influence on degrading New Zealand's influence in the Pacific region, perhaps more sidelined by an Australian dialogue?


Helen Clark:

Not at all, is the short answer. I think that generally New Zealand is respected for the positions it takes because it thinks them through. They're not always the positions that its oldest and most powerful friends take but then we have to justify our actions to the constituency at home and the constituency at home I think was very supportive of trying to avoid war in Iraq if it possibly could. The constituency at home has also been supportive of the New Zealand government being prepared to offer support for reconstruction in Iraq at the end of the war. So what does matter to us is that we keep the faith of our people in making sound judgements about how New Zealand engages diplomatically and offshore.


Bridget Kendall:

Richard, let me ask you, what do you think - do you feel that New Zealand has jeopardised its influence and its standing with its allies because of its policy on Iraq?


Richard Robbins:

Hopefully not. I'm actually British myself but I've been living here in New Zealand for the last three years. I'm actually in the Prime Minister's constituency myself and I was very proud to be here in New Zealand and the fact that New Zealand did stand up and be counted to say that it didn't agree with the situation. But I can't help but think that perhaps a more Australian stance would have more future influence - say with the US - that's not a necessarily good thing though.


Helen Clark:

Those are the breaks aren't they? As I say, we took a position that was very consistent with New Zealand's long-term international position, its support for the UN, support for multilateralism and one which was certainly very much in tune with the desires of the New Zealanders. I think that if we had participated in the war and then seen all the debate that's going on now - about the intelligence basis for it and the missing weapons of mass destruction - you'd find our government in considerable trouble at home. Now I think what we want to be able to continue to do is make a reasoned contribution to international dialogue about issues and act on what we think are the New Zealand based interests but also are in the best interests of upholding the international system.


Bridget Kendall:

Let's move on to something slightly different now. There's been a lot of interest around the world in this new law that's been passed by your parliament to legalise prostitution. It was passed very narrowly, in fact I believe you had the casting vote. And we have on the line now Ryan Mahon from Washington USA, who's got about that. Ryan what would you like to say to the Prime Minister?


Ryan Mahon:

Good morning Prime Minister Clark. I'm an anthropology student at an American university in Washington DC. I've done some interviews with service providers, to survivors of sex trafficking, and that's really where my question comes from. I was wondering how you think legalising prostitution will impact on sex trafficking of children and women? And if you could, in your response, address how you think legalised prostitution will impact, not only organised crime networks and gangs, but less formal networks of peers and friends interested in exploited children and women?


Helen Clark:

Well I think the most adverse impacts that you talk about actually thrive in a situation where prostitution is in the twilight, it's not legal and therefore it's most likely to attract the attention of criminals, to put no finer point on it.

We had this bill passed very narrowly through the New Zealand parliament, it was a members' bill, not a government bill. The result was 60 votes for, 59 against and one abstention. So at that point any single person changing their mind could have changed the overall result. Why did I support it? I supported it not because I favour prostitution - I personally find prostitution quite abhorrent and if you want to use words about morality I don't like it at all. But I have to distinguish between my personal moral views on it and what's appropriate for women and then the difficulties of having an activity in society, which has always been with us, operating beyond the law and where the people engaged in the trade - and it's generally women - are very, very vulnerable. They've got no proper protection of the law, no issues of health and safety can be dealt with, employment law etc. etc. So they're very vulnerable and marginalised people. So my view is it's better to be absolutely honest about the fact that your society has prostitution and everyone knew that the signs that said massage parlour were really something else and by bringing in a control system about it, I think we can try and minimise the worst effects of it.


Bridget Kendall:

Ryan do you find that answer convincing?


Ryan Mahon:

I think that you've made some very compelling points. One thing that what you said makes me think of is that in a way it might actually make it easier for people to engage in trafficking because then it becomes simply a matter of forging documents to prove where they came from or that they are of legal age, rather than hiding the activity itself.


Helen Clark:

We have to be very alert to that, of course, at the border control level and we are very alert - the prostitutes from offshore getting work permits I can assure you. Fortunately New Zealand it doesn't have land borders so we are able to be somewhat more rigorous on who gets in and out of our country than perhaps some people. But we're very alert to issues of trafficking and in all honesty have not had a great problem with it. I remember many years ago, as a much younger MP, helping a young woman from another country who had been got to New Zealand on false pretences and put in a brothel. She spoke no English, eventually escaped and was able to tell her story and the person who had brought her here was convicted, actually of slavery, a very rare offence indeed. But we have very little of this in New Zealand.


Bridget Kendall:

You don't worry that with the best of intentions you could be making prostitution into a problem for New Zealand because people may think of it as a possible career?


Helen Clark:

No I don't think that as a result of what has happened they'll be a single more person attracted to work in this rather unpleasant profession and I don't think they'll be a single more client. I think what we do in New Zealand is endeavour to have the law deal with reality rather than some sort of illusion that it doesn't happen.


Bridget Kendall:

It certainly made the world wonder if New Zealand is sort of right out there in the front on social issues and we've had this e-mail from Michael Witbrock in Austin in Texas in the USA who says: "Now that Canada is ceasing outlawing marriage for gay and lesbian couples, does the New Zealand government plan to do the same thing and follow suit?"


Helen Clark:

The New Zealand Government is going through all laws, practices, conventions to look at what offends against international human rights standards. And we do have work going on for what we're calling a civil union legislation, which will enable homosexual couples to legalise relationships. The present intention would not be that that would be called marriage because that has particular connotations. But we do think that it should be possible for both heterosexual and homosexual couples to have legalised forms of relationship, that aren't marriage, but do give the parties in the relationship rights.


Bridget Kendall:

Let's go to a caller in Malaysia, Laurence Ong, who also wants to ask you about this whole question and the influence New Zealand might have on other countries. Laurence, what's your question?


Lawrence Ong:

Yes, hello Prime Minister Clark. While the relations between Malaysia and New Zealand have always been good and we are both part of the Commonwealth, and also a lot of Malaysia students pursue their studies in New Zealand. But I'm concerned about the human rights record in Malaysia and Asia - just a follow up to the previous question, for example, the criminalisation of homosexuality. There's a lot Malaysia could learn from a country like New Zealand. As a very outspoken and great politician I want to know what you have done in this area in Asia or if you're planning to pressure some Asian countries like Malaysia soon? New Zealand is a relatively small country, does it have any power to do so?


Helen Clark:

Well New Zealand is a small country so it's not in a position to pressure anybody really. I guess we take decisions that we think are appropriate for us and if others feel that they're relevant and could learn from them we're always happy to share ideas. We obviously do make statements about international human rights issues and that has caused us to comment on Malaysia from time to time but I think leading by example is one thing New Zealand can do.


Bridget Kendall:

Do you think Laurence that New Zealand could have an influence on Malaysia?


Lawrence Ong:

I hope so. But I'm very concerned because there are a lot of dictators in Asia and we all know that they're extremely stubborn especially Malaysia with the Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, he's so blind and he doesn't seem to care about a lot of Western leaders, let alone New Zealand. However, it's just difficult to see that New Zealand, such a close country to Malaysia, yet there is not much that Malaysia can do and there's so much that Malaysia can learn from New Zealand. But we just need that kind of pressure from Western countries one way or another.


Bridget Kendall:

Thank you Laurence. I wanted to bring here another social issue, I guess it is, this is an e-mail from Gary Chiles, who's in Wellington in New Zealand, he wanted to ask about cannabis law reform, and he says: "Why are you letting a small minority of Christian fundamentalists stand in the way of cannabis law reform?"


Helen Clark:

Actually I don't think it is a small minority of Christian fundamentalists standing in the way of it. What Gary's referring to is that as part of the agreement the government has with one party for confidence and supply votes in the New Zealand parliament, Labour undertook not to introduce as a government measure cannabis law reform legislation. That's not to say that a private member from any party might not introduce such legislation. And were it to be introduced, I would vote for it to go to the select committee because I think there are some issues that we should be looking at.

In the states of Australia, for example, south Australia for quite a long time there has been partially decriminalisation. And when I was minister of health many years ago in New Zealand I got advice that we would be well advised to go down that track. The reason being that it is very difficult to put in place proper public health campaigns around the use of a drug like cannabis if it is being categorised as a criminal activity to use it. So in a sense you have to come in from the shadows, in a way as I've described with prostitution, to deal with the health issues.

I do not advocate that people use cannabis, to use a phrase, I think its plain dopey and I like to promote much more positive lifestyles - healthy lifestyles for young people. But what I know from my period as minister of health is that the worst and most ineffective way to get people to take on healthy activities is to tell them not to do the unhealthy activities they were doing and that's particularly the case I think with young people - don't do it is almost an invitation to do it. So I think we need quite sophisticated public health campaigns about some of the long-term issues with these drugs. But I'm not persuaded that a drug like cannabis needs to be a heavy criminal activity in the eyes of the law to be dealt with.


Bridget Kendall:

We've just had this e-mail in, also from New Zealand, from Jonathan Adler who asks on another issue: "Where do you stand on legalising euthanasia?"


Helen Clark:

Well there is actually a private members bill and a ballot for debate in New Zealand on this issue and again I will vote for the bill to go to the select committee and hear evidence. What I've observed about New Zealand public opinion is that parliamentarians tend to be rather more conservative on it than public opinion as a whole. Public opinion tends to be supportive of a terminally ill person having the right themselves to decide when they will end their lives. The Dutch have quite interesting ways of dealing with these issues and I'd like to see it given to a select committee in New Zealand so we can look at the international evidence. There was such a bill debated in our parliament some time in the 1990s and I was one of 27 people who voted for it to be further debated then but it wasn't the mood of the times.


Bridget Kendall:

All these social issues, particularly prostitution, to some extent lesbian and gay marriages, cannabis certainly, such progressive legislation in New Zealand would, does, put it on quite a different course from large countries like the United States, not to mention, as Laurence said, Malaysia. Do you see this sort of sort of move by New Zealand as putting it on something of a collision course with some of its friends in the region, allies like the United States?


Helen Clark:

Well I think what's interesting about New Zealand is that it's a micro-democracy, there's four million of us, the issues are all out on the table, people debate them, they expect the Prime Minister to have an opinion or a view, or an analysis of it - it's all out there and I think that's very, very healthy. When you look at who we compare ourselves with, we take a lot of notice on what happens in other small like minded democracies, whether it's Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland - countries which are generally from a liberal tradition and also like to put the issues out on the table and thrash them about. And maybe that's of interest to other countries to enable them to deal with public debate on these issues.


Bridget Kendall:

You don't see it causing a conflict?


Helen Clark:

Oh no, not at all. I mean people will say well that's New Zealand, that's the way they do things. But often it's found to be quite refreshing that we are up front and we deal with the issues.


Bridget Kendall:

Let's go to another caller now. And this time it's Germany, Dortmund, and on the line is Tridiv Borah, Tridiv what would you like to ask?


Tridiv Borah:

Hello, good morning. I was actually concerned about the United Nations development report that has recently come out which puts a major portion of the blame for the non-alleviation of poverty on the developed countries, the reluctance of spending on development aid. And I was concerned with the fact that most of the so-called successful countries, in terms of poverty alleviation, have some kind of socialist agenda in terms of targeting poverty groups - the groups of people who are poor directly with some socialistic principles in mind. And this apparently clashes with the largely capitalist economics that we are functioning with in the modern world.

The second part is the responsibility of the countries themselves. I think poverty alleviation is the primary responsibility of the countries themselves and not of the external sources. So I would like to know the position of the government of New Zealand on this aspect. To what extent do you think that the poverty alleviation should be primarily and exclusively the responsibility of the countries themselves and only secondly through development aid?


Helen Clark:

Well I think there are two sides to the coin. I've been quite interested in the way in which the new partnership for African development, which was put on the table between leading African nations and the G8 developed, because that accepted on the part of the developed countries that there was a responsibility for aid, for opening up markets and for investment into the developing world. But the other side of the coin was that the developing world needs to get its own house in order with good governance. If you have bad government frankly, you have corrupt government, if you have inefficient and ineffective government, it's very hard to make the very best development programmes work. So I think we've got to see the two sides of the coin. Yes the West, the developed world, can do more through aid, trade and investment. But if that's to be effective then developing countries need to accept responsibility for having good governance in place.


Bridget Kendall:

There is one issue which on this whole question of development has intertwined with it - it's an environmental problem as well, and that's the question of genetically modified crops. We've had an e-mail from Auckland in New Zealand from Hans who says: "I understand from the present media that the government is about to allow GE products to enter the kiwi market. Dear Miss Helen Clark what is your opinion on the GE/GM issue?"


Helen Clark:

Well this is one of the central issues in the last election campaign in New Zealand because we have had a royal commission of inquiry into genetic modification issues. And bear in mind that New Zealand is a country with large primary production sectors, it's been primary production where GM's been most controversial in terms of crops and so obviously there's interest in what New Zealand will do.

Now what our royal commission of the good and great, wise, recommended was that New Zealand shouldn't have an outright ban on genetic modification. But what it must have is a very robust and strong regulatory system which on a case by case basis can assess whether there are benefits of commercial release of genetic modification in New Zealand. We are, at the moment, tidying up our legislation, to strengthen it. We have had a constraint on applications for commercial release now for some time. That will come off at the end of October and any application will be judged against a strict regulatory framework.

We think that's better than just turning your back on science, if you like, and saying no, no, not here never, that would be unacceptable to our agricultural sector which doesn't want to forego the possible benefit. On the other hand if you're asking me do I think there's about to be a deluge of applications for commercial release, no I don't. The food producer in New Zealand is very sensitive to consumer opinion offshore. If consumer opinion is saying we won't eat it we're not going to grow it.


Bridget Kendall:

Those who criticise the idea of GM crops say well once you let some in then you've opened the floodgates. So it's quite difficult to have a policy where you're a little bit pro, a little bit anti.


Helen Clark:

Well that's what our regulatory system would have to judge if it got too that. But I don't myself see this as a food safety issue. What goes on the shelves in New Zealand, as in any developed country, is safe to eat. We do have strong labelling law, as does the European Union, we take food safety very, very seriously. I don't really think it's about that, I think it's coming down to ethical choice with respect to what people eat. And then the scientific debate about what if genetic modification has consequences we do know about at this time.


Bridget Kendall:

It is also a debate there about the developing world, isn't it, a subject our previous caller raised. That on the one hand, genetically modified crops might be able better to resist disease and help alleviate hunger, on the other hand do you then lock these markets of the developed world that doesn't want GM foods? What do you think about that?


Helen Clark:

Well it's a fair point to make and before developing countries go down the GM road with the possible benefits, they're going to have to think about what it does to their markets. Actually it might be one of these cases where the markets has a more positive effect for the environment than might have been assumed.


Bridget Kendall:

Let's go to another caller and it's Alistair Clarke, who's in Leamington Spa, here in the United Kingdom, Alistair you're on the line.


Alastair Clarke:

Good morning. My question was one concerning how a consumer can help to provide a fairer environment in terms of products bought in the West for producers, taking as an example coffee where in the UK products which purport to be more friendly and helpful towards the growers, like fair trade coffee, which one buys in the thought that one's actually helping growers more but then you learn supermarkets are actually charging more and one, as a consumer, is not aware of how such activities are actually helping producers. I would have thought that a lot more public knowledge about how trade works and how the West may help or hinder the third world, if I can call them that, would be helpful.


Helen Clark:

Well I think they are fair points. I think we know if we buy through an Oxfam shop or fair trade outlet of some sort that they will be dealing directly with producers and often small scale cooperatives in the country producing the products. So we've got reasonable confidence that the benefit goes back through. But again I would say that in the end the food distribution industry is quite sensitive to what consumers want and if consumers are demanding a higher level of ethics in how food is produced, where it's come from, what are the conditions of the workers in the industry, I think you'll get a response over time from supermarkets and others to that. As I understand in the UK the supermarkets responded on the GM issue and said oh well then we won't stock it - that's consumer power and maybe we could use it in more coordinated way with respect to goods from the developing world.


Bridget Kendall:

I wanted to bring up a different subject now, this is an e-mail we've just had from Shanghai in China from Ross Polson who wanted to ask you about Burma: "What's the New Zealand government's position on their abuse of human rights by the Burmese region inside and on the borders of Burma?"


Helen Clark:

Well absolutely outraged by it. Let's not forget that Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election and has never been able to preside as the elected leader of Burma. For quite a long time she was in effect on home detention - able to receive people and start to rebuild her movement. But these events in recent weeks and months where she has been detained again in what sounds like very poor conditions and many of her supporters have been killed is very, very distressing.


Bridget Kendall:

And what do you think can be done to change the situation - it's been like that for years?


Helen Clark:

It has been like that for years. It did appear in the course of the last couple of years that there was a space opening up for Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic movement. But the events of recent weeks of course have cast an enormous shadow over that. So it will have to be international pressure right across Asean neighbours, other Asian neighbours, Western countries - it is not acceptable to have what is happening in Burma today. B


Bridget Kendall:

Pressure - you mean sanctions?


Helen Clark:

Well in the end the world can crank itself up to sanctions, as it has with Zimbabwe, another sad case.


Bridget Kendall:

Except it doesn't seem to be making any difference.


Helen Clark:

Well I think over time it does make a difference and I agree it seems to be taking an interminably long time. But I think events are close to breaking point in Zimbabwe.


Bridget Kendall:

We've got a caller on the line from Iceland, from Reykjavik, it's June Moririkawa. June what would you like to ask the Prime Minister?


June Moririkawa:

Hello Prime Minister. I have a short question about New Zealand immigration. As I understand, you have growing numbers of Asian immigrants in New Zealand. How do they affect your country and how do the Kiwi people deal with that issue?


Bridget Kendall:

So the impact of Asian immigrants in New Zealand.


Helen Clark:

Well we have annual migration quota - 45,000 people - and it has been one that's been totally non-discriminatory on the basis of race. It has a skills focus - it's had a rather loose skills focus and we're moving to strengthen the skills focus at the present time. But going back over a long period of time, the migration into New Zealand was mainly European and that included - went right up to and beyond World War II when the nations of Europe were shattered and living standards in New Zealand were a lot higher. Well of course since then New Zealand's living standards, relative to much of Western Europe, have not kept pace and so you're not going to get in a migration programme overwhelming numbers of West Europeans, you're more likely to be attracting people, well educated people, from the developing world. That's the reality.

Is there a debate about it in New Zealand? Well of course there is and we have our equivalent of Mr Le Pen in New Zealand and that party scored about 10% of the vote. But I think the fact that it was kept to 10% tells you that by and large Kiwis know that you have to have migration because we're in an international labour market and a lot of kiwis go and work offshore, including at the BBC in London - which is almost run by the Kiwis in some respect. So as other people poach our people, we have to poach other people because we want to have an economy that works well, we have to staff our service occupations like nursing and medicine. It's going to need a good mix of people coming in.


Bridget Kendall:

We talked earlier about social legislation - does the immigration have an impact on that, make it more divisive?


Helen Clark:

I don't think so. There was some debate in New Zealand about the fact that the abstention on the prostitution law reform bill was cast by the single Muslim in the parliament and that perhaps gave him attention he didn't particularly want but no I don't think it causes any problems.


Bridget Kendall:

We've had another e-mail which touches on a similar point, this is from Wisconsin in the US from Jonty Monopoli who says: "We're famous in New Zealand for exporting university graduates overseas and some like myself don't return. I'm intrigued how you plan to combat this brain drain and are there any plans to tempt some of us home?"


Helen Clark:

Well we'd love people to come home but the reality is that the brain-drain, I think, has been pretty largely stemmed. Over the last year or so, the number of Kiwis returning home is up and the numbers of Kiwis leaving is down. Why is this? It's because, firstly there's opportunity in New Zealand, which is more than many countries. We had last year the fastest growing economy in the OECD at 4.4% and our unemployment at 5% is significantly lower than much of the western world.

Then there's the factor of security - I think after September 11th a lot of Kiwis who had loved the buzz of living in New York and loved the buzz of being in a big capital started to see the security and safety downside of it and at that point your mind starts to turn to well where do I really want to put down my roots, do I want my kids to have the sort of childhood that I had in New Zealand? And that becomes quite a compelling force for coming home.


Bridget Kendall:

Actually we've got a caller on the line from Auckland in New Zealand, Ishvinder Singh who wants to ask you about the economy in New Zealand.


Ischvinder Singh:

Over my stay spanning the better part of two years, I have seen that the Labour government has a remarkable ability to deal with difficult issues especially immigration, prostitution reform and a principled stand on the Iraq issue. However my complaint is that it has taken a lot of debate and discussion in the public before the government has acted firmly on anything. For example, on immigration, it took a certain Mr Winston Peters, to raise a lot of stink before this issue was firmly fixed. Given this background, the state of the economy is an issue which is not really debated and taking from the prime minister's previous speech on the knowledge-based economy, or there was a discussion creating an economy based on innovation. What kind of a road map do we have in really coming close knowledge based economy and reducing the dependency on commodity exports as it is at this stage?


Helen Clark:

Well two points, I won't give Mr Peters any credit for the changes the government's made on immigration policy. Actually the changes we made are very much part of the growth and innovation framework strategy which we released about 18 months ago.

What is really driving this government is the need to move the New Zealand economy upmarket. You cannot be an affluent first world country in the 21st Century if you're making your living off commodities, the money is not there, you have to go into niche and branded products, you have to have a high level of sophistication and innovation in your industry. How do you do that? Well the first issue is your workforce, it has to be highly educated, highly skilled and if you can't educate enough school people fast enough at home you have to bring in migrants who do have those skills. So immigration is core to the economic strategy.

Secondly we're putting a great emphasis on research and development and with the changes we've put in place in the past two years we've seen a 31% increase in private sector investment in R & D, which is a triumph because that's where we've been trailing a lot of countries. The government's spend on R & D is also quite significant.

Thirdly, we're pressing very hard on external connections for New Zealand, all of our industry has to be externally competitive because we're a very open economy, if we can't do it competitively someone else will come on our home ground and do it. We have to be export oriented because a small economy doesn't give enough scale for stand alone self-sufficient domestic industries, you have to have the external focus.

And fourthly, we identified three leading edged sectors which were capable of very good growth potential in their own right as well as having an enabling and modernising effects across the whole economy and we've been doing a lot of in-depth work with the private sector on them, ICT obviously, biotechnology and creative industries.


Bridget Kendall:

There's one point that we haven't raised, which is very much in the news at the moment, and that's the Solomon Islands. Daniel Jones from Hamilton, New Zealand, wants to ask about the decision both Australia and New Zealand have taken to send peacekeepers there. He asks: "Don't you think sending troops as peacekeepers to the Solomons, without a UN mandate, would invite hostilities in the country and in fact very much symbolises imperialism?"


Helen Clark:

Well firstly New Zealand wouldn't be going near the Solomon Islands if there were not a request from the Solomon Islands' government, which is a properly elected government. It has taken the issue of inviting outside support to its parliament. The parliament has now voted for that and it has moved on to put in place legislation to facilitate it. So a request from the Solomon Islands was absolutely basic to this.


Bridget Kendall:

Thank you. A caller on the line from Japan, Jeff O'Toole what's your question to the Prime Minister?


Jeff O'Toole:

What I'm very concerned about that New Zealand is going to move towards a republican movement. I'm a young Kiwi - 25 years old. Why drop the Queen?


Bridget Kendall:

Thank you Jeff. This is a question about Republicanism and appropriate that you should answer it in Britain. Do you still want New Zealand to leave the Commonwealth - to be a republic?


Helen Clark:

New Zealand will always be in the Commonwealth and there are a lot of republics in the Commonwealth. The Queen has recognised as head of the Commonwealth. But at some time New Zealand will review its constitution, I don't think that time is imminent, there's no great passion for it as an issue in New Zealand. But over time it will seem stranger and stranger that New Zealand has a head of state 12,000 miles away and people will start to look at ways that we can in effect repatriate the head of state and have something that's indigenously New Zealand. But I don't think the time is right, right now.


Bridget Kendall:

Before we let you go there's one subject that we have to ask you about and it's epitomised in this e-mail from Del in London who asks: "Do you take seriously the discrimination faced by hobbits in certain parts of the island and also why are the elves under-represented in the police force and the civil service?" He's referring of course to the fact that the Long of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand. From other e-mails we've had we know it's been somewhat controversial. What's your view, why did you take that decision and what do you think it's done for New Zealand?


Helen Clark:

I think the Lord of the Rings has been magnificent for New Zealand. Of course it's not a New Zealand story, it's a story written by an academic don here in the United Kingdom but it's been a novel which has attracted and absorbed people for more than half a century. So they had the opportunity for New Zealand to make the film trilogy, the biggest ever movie production, and for New Zealand's film industry to be able to rise to that challenge with sophisticated technology, skilled workforce, infrastructure has shown what we can do in the creative area and it's created a lot of interest in film investment in New Zealand. We're also interested of course in telling more of our own stories through the medium of film and we've got various strategies in place for that. But Lord of the Rings rolling out a movie each year for three years has been fantastic for us, there's a lot of interest in tourism - people coming to New Zealand - and contributed to our economic success.


Bridget Kendall:

You don't think that you are in danger of having too many tourists who are scouring your mountains for hobbits and elves and auks?


Helen Clark:

Well we want high value tourism, in the end probably we don't want a huge extra number over what we have now but having established New Zealand as a destination we want to move the whole tourism industry up the value chain so you pitch it at the top end. A smaller number of people spending a good amount is better in every respect from very large numbers of people spending very little. And I think we're well on the way to having that high value and quality tourism industry.


Bridget Kendall:

Helen Clark, thank you very much because that's all we have time for today. So my thanks very much to our guest Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and my thanks to all of you who took part in the programme. Don't forget that you can keep sending your e-mails to Talking Point at bbc.co.uk and you can visit our website at bbcnews.com/talkingpoint where you can watch or listen to either this programme or any previous one. Lyse Doucet will be here next week but for now from me, Bridget Kendall, and the rest of the team, goodbye.




SEE ALSO:
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