Questions about Winston Peters and NZ’s foreign policy

Winston Peters negotiated the roles of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Some of his positions, especially on Russia, have been controversial – and somewhat mysterious.

Guyon Espiner asks some pertinent questions, like What is Winston Peters’ foreign policy, anyway?

To outsiders New Zealand foreign policy must look like a riddle wrapped in a mystery, perhaps clear only to the enigmatic deputy prime minister and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

That phrase is, of course, butchered and borrowed from Winston Churchill, who was trying to decipher Russian intentions at the start of World War II.

The direction of New Zealand foreign policy under his namesake seems similarly opaque. This presents challenges for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in Paris and London this week, seeking to progress trade deals with the European Union (EU) and Britain.

The publicity from the trip is likely to be positive but beyond the photo-ops, what is New Zealand actually doing in foreign affairs?

Ardern is certainly getting plenty of photo op opportunities, and she hasn’t visited the Queen yet.

Unfortunately for the PM the narrative has been blown off course by the timebomb Peters placed in the coalition agreement – his wish for a free trade deal with Russia.

Against a back drop of Russian-Western conflict not seen since the Cold War, uncomfortable questions follow Ardern around Europe. Why, just weeks ago, was her country still clinging to the notion it could pursue a trade deal with Russia? Why did it take so long to drop the idea and why was it there in the first place?

An as yet unanswered mystery.

The demand to re-start the deal didn’t come from a free trade champion. Peters has largely opposed FTAs, including with South Korea and China.

Why did Peters cast doubt on Russia’s role in bringing down MH17 and meddling in the US elections? Why did the government insist there were no Russian spies here and buck the trend of its allies, who expelled Russian diplomats?

The questions continue after the missile strikes on Syria. While Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull and Canada’s Justin Trudeau support the strikes, New Zealand “accepts why” they occurred.

Perhaps this is what you’d expect from a coalition government with Labour at the helm.

Rather than blindly follow their Five Eyes friends they seek an independent path. That line can be traced from Helen Clark’s refusal to join the Iraq War in 2003 to the actions of David Lange and Norman Kirk in protesting nuclear weapons.

I don’t remember Kirk or Lange being as vague as Ardern.

And then there is Peters, who rarely gives straight answers.

What is it that Winston Peters wants to achieve in foreign policy?

Both New Zealand First and Labour opposed the TPP in opposition and then supported it in government with minor amendments.

It wasn’t much of a surprise to see that Labour was largely in favour of the TPP, despite their opposition when in Opposition. But NZ First’s back flip looks less logical.

The tweaks allowed them to ban foreigners buying New Zealand houses but that breached the existing FTA with Singapore. Will Singaporeans be exempt from the ban? Peters stopped by Singapore on his way to Europe this week. Has he settled it?

I can’t find any news reports of his Singapore visit, and he hasn’t put out any ministerial release.

And what of China? Will it be the job of Winston Peters to take the relationship forward?

Will China be receptive to Peters?  Important questions.

The deeper question is why he wants the job at all. The Greens chose portfolios which visibly align with their philosophies, such as climate change and conservation.

For the leader of a party called New Zealand First, which positions itself as a champion of provincial battlers, to take international affairs is a less obvious fit.

On the night he announced the government, Peters made dark noises about the failings of capitalism and the challenges facing the economy. And then he chose Foreign Affairs.

Trying to figure out Winston may be a fool’s errand.

Usually that is a supporting role to the prime minister, who is the country’s real voice on foreign policy. Peters could soon hold both jobs, while Ardern takes maternity leave.

That could be interesting – and it could be a risk. Who knows what he will say or do? Will Ardern? Does she work closely with him, or has he been given the freedom to do much as he pleases? Will he be making key decisions while acting PM?

Perhaps he’ll hand over foreign affairs to his under-secretary and party deputy Fletcher Tabuteau? Or maybe he’ll keep us guessing.

Asking Peters is unlikely to get many answers that are any use to clarifying New Zealand’s foreign policy. I don’t know if Tabuteau would be any better, especially with peters hovering around in charge of the country. If Ardern hands over control.

What experience does Tabuteau have with foreign policy and diplomacy? He was an economics lecturer and head of the business school at Waiariki Institute of Technology beforfe becoming an MP in 2014. No sign of offshore experience.

There are a number of important unanswered questions about both our foreign policy and our leadership over the next few months.

6 Comments

  1. Blazer

     /  April 19, 2018

    Independent foreign policy is a good thing.No one could be worse than…Murray.

  2. Missy

     /  April 19, 2018

    I can answer why Peters chose Foreign Affairs… well I can guess anyway. Foreign Travel. MFAT has one of the largest – if not the largest – travel budgets of any Ministry, their Minister gets the most overseas trips barring the PM, and followed closely by Defence.

    Essentially he will get loads of jollies on the taxpayer.

    • Blazer

       /  April 19, 2018

      you don’t seem to understand that ,after 40 years in politics he’s been there…done that.He has the experience and pragmatism needed for the…role.

      • Gezza

         /  April 19, 2018

        He’s done ok when he had the role under Helen Clark where he knew what the Foreign Policy was and just had to promote it. If he’s now making it, it could be an inexplicable, incoherent shambles.

  3. David

     /  April 19, 2018

    Be fun to have the US system and confirmation hearings where our lord almighty Peters had to answer to the foriegn affairs select committee before he got the job.

    • Blazer

       /  April 19, 2018

      wow,here’s me thinking Trump was the man you had to..answer to.