Diplomatic eyebrows were raised when PM Jacinda Ardern named Nanaia Mahuta as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She is the first woman to hold the portfolio and she got the job ahead of more highly ranked figures including Andrew Little and David Parker, who were understood to be interested in steering policy in this field.
Mahuta’s only international experience seems to have been as associate trade minister in the previous government but Beehive insiders say David Parker – as Minister of Trade and Export Growth – was loath to let anything of substance out of his reach in that field. In the past three years every press statement in this portfolio was released in Parker’s name except for a few released in the name of Damien O’Connor as Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth. We found none released in Mahuta’s name, although she did issue some trade-related statements as Minister for Maori Development.
As a politician she has been relatively self-effacing, although in her own fields she is said to be thorough and careful. but Ardern offered a powerful rationale for Mahuta’s elevation to one of the key ministries, pointing to her aptitude for building strong relationships. She might also have mentioned that Mahuta listens carefully to her advisers.
In following Winston Peters as Foreign Minister Mahuta will be expected to continue the Pacific reset he initiated. The more difficult diplomatic area may be in the relationship with China.
But given the international glow which Ardern enjoys, it could be the PM herself that seeks to burnish NZ’s credentials in the global theatre.
There are plenty of previous examples in NZ’s history where the PM of the day has kept a close eye on the heavy stuff in NZ’s international affairs.
In 1981 PM Robert Muldoon appointed Warren Cooper, the Otago Central MP, as minister to replace Brian Talboys who had retired after a glittering career as foreign and trade minister during the thick of the UK-Common Market negotiations.
Cooper was no intellectual but was a shrewd operator and became an effective foreign minister, especially in the lead up to the Springbok rugby tour. He effectively shielded MFAT from Muldoon’s wrath when the PM suspected the ministry had a hand in some of the anti-tour tactics at home and abroad.
Another Maori, Peeni Henare, who had ambitions to be Health minister, has also had a big promotion, winnning Defence. Within the forces there is relief, considering some of those otherwise on offer. He has distinguished lineage with his grandfather, Sir James Henare, a former commander of the Maori Battalion with the rank of lieutenant colonel who subsequently became a National MP.
As Audrey Young commented in the NZ Herald, having Maori in both Foreign Affairs and Defence is not new: Winston Peters and Ron Mark held the portfolio last term.
“But it makes a statement that Maori ministers will be up for all jobs, including the ones that represent NZ internationally, not just the ones that address social disparities”.
Henare clearly has serious political ambitions and has the chance now to show he can handle a major portfolio.
The elevation of Mahuta and Henare to roles on the international stage underlines to the world that the days when NZ could be regarded as a European outpost are long gone. The government now speaks with a bicultural voice.