Left-wing blogger Chris Trotter, in one of his recent essays, questions whether PM Jacinda Ardern is really running the government or is merely its figurehead.
He cited several examples of the PM appearing to be unaware of key policy decisions and questioned whether allowing her leading Cabinet Ministers to simply get on with the job is a central feature of her management style.
“I hope not. It would suggest that Ardern has chosen the role of figurehead rather than leader. That her job is to supply the warm and sympathetic face of the Coalition Government while the heavy-hitters of her Cabinet – Winston Peters, Grant Robertson, David Parker, Phil Twyford, Meagan Woods and Shane Jones – carry out the day-to-day business of governing the country”.
The issue has been thrown into stark relief by the major shift in foreign policy enunciated by Foreign Minister Winston Peters, whereby under the umbrella of his Pacific Reset policy he has decisively tilted NZ’s balancing act between China and the US.
In a speech in Washington, in saying there are “few relationships better than that between NZ and the US”, Peters spelled out how NZ and the US share a special connection
“ … for we both retain democratic traditions that have stood firm despite the upheavals of the twentieth century. Our institutions are founded on democratic values, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and free and fair trade. Promoting and maintaining the rule of law is the defining feature of both of our political systems”.
Peters made it plain his visit to Washington is aimed at enlisting greater US support in the region.
“We unashamedly ask for the US to engage more and think it is in your vital interests to do so. And time is of the essence”.
Peters said NZ is
“ … acutely mindful of and archly concerned by the asymmetries at play in the region at a time when larger players are renewing their interest in the Pacific with an attendant level of strategic competition”.
“The speed and intensity of those interests at play are of great concern to us. Our eyes are wide open to this trajectory and we know that yours are too.”
All of this must be read in the context of the US and China engaging in an increasingly tense trade war.
For long enough it appeared NZ was seeking to ignore the strained relations between the US and China, along with China’s militaristic actions in the South China Sea, and its heavy aid to the Pacific.
Peters’ appeal to the US follows his own move to take a more hard-nosed line towards China (previously noted in Point of Order), which has led to a cooler tone out of Beijing towards NZ.
Commentators have observed a defence strategy paper in which NZ explicitly criticised China’s expansionism in the South China Sea for the first time; the announcement of a multi-billion dollar upgrade of air force surveillance capability to planes that could carry anti-submarine weaponry; a preliminary refusal to allow Chinese-owned Huawei to participate in the country’s 5-G mobile network rollout; and an on-again, off-again first prime ministerial visit to Beijing.
Ardern told her post-Cabinet press conference Peters did not show her the speech he delivered in Washington.
Speaking at her last post-Cabinet press conference for the year, Ardern is said to have “pushed back” at the suggestion she might have expected to see a speech relating to the government’s flagship “Pacific reset” foreign policy being given in the capital city of its most significant military partner, the US, which also bore directly on its relationship with the country’s largest trading partner, China.
“It’s not only of the US that we believe there’ll be an interest in different regions (sic), including the Pacific. Of course, France has an interest. The UK may take a different approach to foreign policy post-Brexit. These are conversations that I think are worth having with those with whom we’ve shared in the past similar values and directions when it comes to foreign policy,” she said.
Asked whether the speech indicated NZ was adopting a more pro-US stance and a less enthusiastic stance towards China, she gave an emphatic denial:
“No. Absolutely not. This is not a bidding war. This is all about making sure that where there are shared values and projects that we partner those who are able to deliver in the best interests of our region.”
Contrast that with what Peters said in Washington:
“We are saying today to the United States that we welcome your involvement but ask you to join us in doing more because nations with common interests and common causes can achieve more together than any of us can manage on our own.
“Given our sense of urgency about Pacific risks we also point to the need for partners to support each other economically – through free trade and by understanding each other’s economic imperatives – because we can only achieve our collective ambitions by strengthening the economic engines that drive our shared desire to compete better, provide enhanced security, and, ultimately, to see the Pacific region and each other prosper.
It is NZ’s view that the Asia-Pacific region has reached an inflexion point, one that requires the urgent attention of both Wellington and Washington…
“More now needs to be done, working in partnership with Pacific Island countries. We need to ensure that all external actors have the Pacific Island’s interests in mind, including respect for the prevailing economic, social, and political conditions in the region.”
Peters added, almost as an afterthought:
“NZ also acknowledges new actors in the region, like China, and welcomes all partners in the Pacific on terms that take account of the Pacific’s needs, where quality projects are sustainable and delivered transparently. We work with China in the Pacific and will continue to do so on those terms”.
Peters did not spell out what he expects the US might do. But given what he calls his close working relationship with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the groundwork he has done before his Washington visit, he is clearly eager for an early response for his plea for immediate action by the US in the South Pacific.
One possibility he might be hoping for is that the US decides to work with NZ on specific aid projects. Or it might show the flag with military exercises in the region, as it has done with Australia.
But how would Labour stalwarts feel if the US Navy decided to send a Navy taskforce on visits to the South Pacific, including NZ? Would Jacinda Ardern be on the wharf to welcome them?