It’s the speech that keeps on giving.
This gives the lie to advice we were given on the art of delivering a memorable speech: an audience remembers best the first five minutes of a speech and the last five.
In the case of Nanaia Mahuta’s dragons-and-taniwha speech, at Point of Order we reckoned only a few of the audience would have understood the first five minutes and most wouldn’t have been awake to hear the last.
If they did stay awake (we reasoned) they would have struggled to comprehend some chunks between the introduction in te reo and the “thank you” with which the speech ended.
Pacific Connections – Ngā Taniwha nō Te Moana nui a Kiwa
I want to briefly go back to the whanaungatanga New Zealand has to the Pacific. In many respects one could surmise that we share common Taniwha.
How many members of the audience speak te reo?
Some impenetrable stuff was reported by news media for the edification of those who weren’t in the audience.
Here’s something from the Dom-Post, for example,
In a breakfast speech to the New Zealand China Council, Mahuta used the set piece speech on NZ-China relations to outline what she views as a relationship based on respect, predictability and consistency in how New Zealand pursues its long-term interests.
“If we look in the context of our relationship with China and China as a major trading market, we know that we need to ensure that businesses in New Zealand have greater resilience through their market connections, their trade platform with countries beyond China,” Mahuta said
“So it’s important to signal that now as we are in a context that we are recovering form Covid: it’s a major disrupter, there is an opportunity to strengthen multilateralism, there is the opportunity to continue to commit towards international laws and norms and use free trade agreements for good.”
This could well be used to help train future diplomats in how to say something when their mission is to obfuscate, and most definitely should be included in journalism training courses on turning cumbersome quotes into indirect speech.
Point of Order has already reported on how the speech was interpreted in some countries we regard as (more or less) friendly.
There was fierce criticism by some Aussie commentators – but since we last posted on the topic we find support for Mahuta’s speech has been expressed too.
Geoff Raby, an Australian economist and diplomat (he was Australian Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China from 2007 until 2011) argues:
The New Zealand Prime Minister has already sensibly pointed out that in hedging China through coalitions of countries it should be a case of horses for courses. The Five Eyes was established following WWII for sharing intelligence among the Anglo Saxon allies.
It has served its purpose well, even if the exchange is uneven and restricted when it is deemed to be in the interests of one partner or another (usually the US). It is foolish in the extreme to begin to jeopardise this arrangement and the close collaboration it entails by loading it up with other political agendas.
Raby urges NZ to politely give Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne short shrift on the subject of using the Five Eyes for anything other than its original purpose.
It would be greatly in Australia’s interest were Wellington to do so. It is not just China that will look askance at a white Anglo Saxon coalition of countries, but all others will see Australia living up to the region’s, albeit unfair, stereotype of Australia as a deeply racist country. From the perspective of our regional neighbours, while the Five Eyes share values, they also share race.
Political commentator Chris Trotter has pitched in on the issue:
The Australians would’ve been no more interested than the Chinese in all the usual diplomatic ruffage in Mahuta’s speech. The only line that would have made them sit up and take notice was this one:
“It’s a matter that we have raised with Five Eyes partners; that we are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes relationship; that we would much rather prefer looking for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues.”
In plain English:
New Zealand is unwilling to go along with the Five Eyes intelligence gathering operation being expanded into a full-scale diplomatic and military alliance.
That is NOT what the Aussies were expecting, or wanting, to hear. Up until Mahuta’s appointment as foreign minister, New Zealand’s diplomatic (and military) direction of travel had been set by the Five-Eyes-friendly Winston Peters and his Defence Minister sidekick Ron Mark. The idea of New Zealand being welcomed back into the bosom of what Peters’ namesake, Winston Churchill, called “The English-Speaking Peoples” was one that warmed the cockles of the NZ First Leader’s heart.
The speech caused consternation within the commentariat in London.
Jawad Iqbal wrote a critique for The Times under the headline New Zealand’s response to China abuse is spineless
How can New Zealand, a self-declared global leader on human rights, justify siding with China, a regime that imprisons people in concentration camps and crushes pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong? Easily enough, it seems, when the country’s leaders are willing to put trade and a fear of standing up to China ahead of their principles. So much so that New Zealand is prepared to abandon a co-ordinated effort by the Five Eyes security alliance — whose other members are America, Britain, Canada and Australia — to put pressure on Beijing over human rights abuses.
Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s foreign minister, justifies the new approach by saying that the country is “uncomfortable” with applying such pressure. Well, yes: confronting a dictatorial regime used to getting its own way is uncomfortable. That’s the point of making a principled stand. Instead, Mahuta favours raising concerns privately with China: “Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country-agnostic manner,” she says. This will be music to Beijing’s ears.
By declaring that it won’t engage with China through the Five Eyes alliance New Zealand is turning its back on the historical alliances underpinning security in the region. It goes against the joint decision last May to forge an expanded role for the Five Eyes network, with a commitment “to advance their shared values of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights”. This included criticism of Hong Kong’s creeping path towards authoritarianism, as well as the mistreatment of Uighurs in the Xinjiang region. It infuriated Beijing, which shows it is working.
The truth is that New Zealand’s government has long been guilty of a supine attitude towards China. Last month, 14 nations raised concerns about Beijing’s apparent meddling in the World Health Organisation’s investigation into the origins of the pandemic. New Zealand declined to put its name to the communiqué. In January, it failed to sign a statement from the other Five Eyes countries condemning the arrests of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong. When the offices of Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand academic and expert on Chinese propaganda, were burgled in 2018, the investigation got nowhere; her testimony to a parliamentary inquiry was cancelled on dubious procedural grounds.
The Five Eyes network is a mutual endeavour, based on longstanding democratic alliances: surely questions must now be asked about New Zealand’s fitness to remain a member.
The bemused friend of a friend of the scribes at Point of Order – a fellow with experience in diplomacy and dealings with China – reckons half the speech was written in the Foreign Ministry but we have no idea where the other 50% came from.
“It is a curious melange of two approaches, two styles.”
“The speech overall has a juxtaposition of careful foreign policy with mystical allegorical comment and a heavy underlay of indigeneity that makes for a strange muddle. But there is reaffirmation of predictable and consistent pegs of traditional positions that China dislikes, along with subtleties and signals to our friends that can be unpicked.”
This friend of a friend says the speech emphasises multilateral engagement in the Pacific instead of a focus on bilateral links, a critical comment on how China conducts its links there. Mahuta was also critical of China’s role in increasing levels of Pacific debt. They’ll understand this in Beijing.
As to the British, post-Brexit and in the wake of China’s Hong Kong moves they have become more assertive in terms of enunciating a British view of China and are looking for others to echo their views.
Overall, our friend of a friend views Mahuta’s Five Eyes comment as the standard NZ policy of both National and Labour for decades, altered slightly by Winston Peters.
Mahuta may have said it here the most clearly that anyone in the government has done so far, but that comes on the back of the Brits giving us two hours on a Sunday to sign up to a statement into which we had had no input. That is inconsistent with the concept of an independent foreign policy. This is part of the backlash I think.
When you unpick it all – according to this analysis – we’re closer to where we were with the National Government on China, before heading towards other members of Five Eyes with Peters as Minister.
But it is hard to understand where Mahuta is coming from or headed for when she brings Maori values and Maori allegory into the reckoning as a basis for resetting and explaining our foreign policy.
This promotes the anti-colonialist sentiment that is pervading much of our domestic dialogue and reshaping conventional wisdom. The Minister was talking to her own domestic constituency here, not the Chinese.
If this is to become a vital foreign policy plank, we are going to have to try to understand what is entailed and the implications.