Does New Zealand have a contemporary foreign policy, let alone a defence policy? Some of our nearest and dearest are beginning to wonder.
Ambassadors in Wellington are among the world’s most discreet but word is beginning to trickle out.
What is the government up to? Why does it move at glacial speed on foreign-policy issues when there is plenty of energy – evidently – for social policy issues and the improvement of Kiwis’ wellbeing?
Oh – and when will ministers travel again? A senior official left for an overseas visit last week and our contacts in Wellington tell us it was treated almost as though he was making the first flight to the moon.
Going away from NZ? What about the Covid-19 risks, how will quarantine be managed once home? What of the risk that he might bring Covid back with him?
We are taking only a little levity here but there is a developing opinion that the Ardern government doesn’t have its act together.
The PM rides shotgun on the big-four relationships – Australia, Britain, Asia and the US. Maybe Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is peeved that she’s left with the second and third-rankers.
Never mind, she has local government and Maori issues to fill her day. Since taking office she has issued only seven statements or speeches on foreign policy.
The risk, as diplomats in Wellington see it, is that NZ will be leaving its partners increasingly bemused. We have already noted the absence of Wellington from the statement, approved by 16 governments, which called on China to be more forthcoming with Covid scientific data.
A general criticism of the Beehive – but it applies particularly to foreign affairs and defence to a lesser extent – is that ministers prefer to Zoom and make virtual contact rather than boots on the ground.
Contrast this with Australia, the UK, Canada, much of Europe and Japan where ministers have been moving about freely, mindful, of course, and respectful of Covid-denying measures.
Some in Wellington feel the government – along with much of NZ – has retreated into the fortress and is reluctant to venture out. This might explain the hyper-caution over opening the border, hence the treatment that some New Zealanders based overseas receive when they return and are accused of exposing the country to the dreaded virus.
The reluctance of ministers to travel offshore removes the influence they might have with overseas counterparts. Ministers are human and naturally they react to their counterparts rather than officials, no matter how skilful.
Foreign policy is like a plant – it has to be fed and sustained. An active government is much more likely to win invitations to foreign capitals beyond the confines of Zoom.
Across the ranks of senior officials in Wellington, there is a growing hope that PM Jacinda Ardern will seize the moment and push out to reassure friends and allies that NZ is still on board.
Perhaps handing the Covid-19 platform to a colleague might be a start.