I’m not in the least bit surprised by the Prime Minister’s revelation that National supporters called her a “no kids lesbo” during TVNZ’s leaders debate early on in the campaign. Both issues – that she has no children and that she is a lesbian (the first true, the second not) – have been used by the National Party to criticise her on many occasions in the past. (Not that being gay should ever be seen as a criticism – but, clearly, those who hurl it as an insult think it is politically damaging.)
In fact, rumours about Clark’s sexuality and her marriage have been spread by National ever since she ran for Parliament in 1981. During her campaign to win the Auckland seat of Mount Albert in that year, her opponents tried to smear her with many accusations, including the lesbian one. Of that campaign, Clark told author Virginia Myers:
It was a difficult campaign. As a single woman I was really hammered. I was accused of being a lesbian, of living in a commune, having friends who were Trotskyites and gays, of being unstable and unable to settle to anything. If you elect Helen Clark, my political opponents said, she’s for abortion on demand and our whole society will change overnight.
Since then, Clark has faced similar accusations. She told Brian Edwards in his biography of the Prime Minister released in 2002:
Over the years you still get the National Party rumour-mongering, most recently that the marriage has broken up. When Peter [Davis, her husband] went to Christchurch they ran that one round. It never stops. I’ve heard National MPs interject, “What about your affair with so-and-so?” They never stop. They’re relentlessly personally nasty. The one thing I hate is the National Party. I think they’re loathsome people. I do.
But this isn’t merely a historical thing. National MPs have in the past year tried to bring Clark’s childlessness into political debate – saying her lack of children in some sense makes her unsuitable to be Prime Minister (for the details, read my earlier post here). It’s also worth noting that the lesbian charge has also been run against Clark this year by the Nats. When the Young Nats launched their new website last month, I was astonished to see a photo of Helen Clark mocked up as Darth Vader with the caption: “Luke – I am your lesbian father!”
This is all very ugly, and I am very glad that Don Brash has said he would consider comments such as the “no kids lesbo” ones that Clark alleges inappropriate. Perhaps he needs to remind his minders and MPs in no uncertain terms that Clark’s marriage, childlessness and sexual orientation are off-limits. His party has a history of this ugly stuff, and he should be very quick to distance himself from smears of this kind, even if they are coming from National Party members.