Helen Clark's areas of interest include welfare state redistributive policies, international affairs, and equality for women. As a member of the New Zealand Labor Party (NZLP) since 1971 and as a Labor member of Parliament (MP) since 1981, Clark's domestic policy interests are fully fashioned on Labor Party's principles and follow Labor's policies for the economy, employment, tourism, small business, employment rights and occupational safety, transport, fisheries, research science and technology, rural affairs, energy, e-commerce, employment relations, accident coverage and compensation, and industrial development.
The NZLP's objectives are full employment, higher real incomes, and a more equal distribution of income for all New Zealand citizens. The NZLP also believes that economic and social policies are cooperative ventures of public and private investment in people, infrastructure, and communities. Labor's public health policies emphasize prevention and primary health care, including such issues as increasing immunization rates and reducing smoking rates.
In the 1999 election Clark's centrist NZLP patterned their strategy after that of the British Labor Party's successful 1997 election. In 1999 the Labor platform included turning back economic reforms, freezing tariffs, the repeal of the Employment Contracts Act (with the objective of restoring a role for unions), and social spending on hospitals and schools.
The government formed under Clark in 1999 is a coalition government. Clark's government functions under a coalition agreement with Alliance, a party whose policies are more left-leaning than those of Labor. The Alliance is a coalition of five small parties—New Labor Party, Democratic Party, New Zealand Liberal Party, Green Party, and Mana Motihake. When the then-governor general Sir Michael Hardie Boys opened the 46th Parliament on 21 December 1999, his speech detailed the objectives set out in the coalition agreement signed on 6 December 1999, between NZLP and Alliance.
Under Clark the coalition government is committed to a policy platform that reduces inequality, is environmentally sustainable, and that benefits the social and economic welfare of all New Zealanders. The government is also committed to a cooperative relationship with the Greens. The government is committed to continue efforts to right the wrongs done the Maori. (The Maori are a Polynesian people believed to have arrived in New Zealand in the fourteenth century.)
Clark's government also recognizes the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand's founding document. The treaty was signed by 50 Maori chiefs and Captain Hobson, the Crown's representative, on 6 February 1840. This treaty with the Maori has been breached in the past. In 2003 the Maori comprised about 10% of New Zealand's population. Clark's government is committed to closing the economic and social gaps between the Maori and other New Zealanders.
Clark's first 100 days in office involved "feel-good" policies: a bill preventing members of Parliament (MPs) from defecting to other parties; restructuring the student loan repayment scheme, and initiating an inquiry of genetically modified foods. The government also increased the subsidies for fees for dental education to be on a par with those granted to medical students. This decision combined the Labor-Alliance commitment to reducing cost of study to tertiary (university) students. Under Clark, the lifespan of the Mental Health Commission was extended. An inquiry into the efficiency of the electric industry and into its benefits to the ordinary consumer was also pursued.
Clark introduced a broad public policy debate over the responsibilities of public interest broadcasting. Her government did not approve of a joint venture proposal to Television New Zealand to inaugurate digital television service. Instead, Clark and minister of broadcasting and minister in charge of Television New Zealand, Marian Hobbs, wanted to establish a charter emphasizing more programming reflecting New Zealand perspectives, culture, and identity. The dominant commercial objective of digital television service and the thrust of the previous operation of Television New Zealand would act as barriers to this redirection. Hoping to capitalize on the worldwide popularity of the films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (directed by a New Zealander and filmed in New Zealand), New Zealand embarked on a campaign to attract tourists to their country.
In 2002, the New Zealand First party staged a strong showing in July voting with its position that the annual immigration allowances—approximately 50,000 people— needed to be adjusted downward. Clark's government must acknowledge the support for this position and examine the immigration issue seriously during its second three-year term. In addition, Clark faces a challenge to her coalition from the Greens in late 2003 when the moratorium on the commercial use in New Zealand of genetically engineered crops expires. Clark's government has pledged to allow the moratorium to expire without further action, but the Greens strongly oppose the commercial release of genetically engineered organisms in New Zealand.