It has taken nearly eight months of her prime ministership but finally the outlines of Jacinda Ardern’s foreign policy are beginning to take shape.
The Queenstown summit was a great success. You couldn’t have slipped a finer tissue paper between Ardern and Aussie PM Scott Morrison on China, the Indo-Pacific and regional security.
Perhaps not the latter because it is still not clear how this government views this age-old arrangement which began as a post-World War II intelligence-sharing exchange.
Ardern and her part-time foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta started off by claiming it should be kept as an intelligence-only organisation.
No, we are not being cute about Mahuta – she has told colleagues she can allocate only 20-30% of her time given the weight and reach of other work, particularly the local government portfolio which has an enormous workload made only heavier by the challenge of reshaping controls over NZ’s water resources atop local government reform.
Then there is the Maori caucus which is increasingly exercising its influence.
In most governments the foreign affairs portfolio is one of the heaviest and properly requires full-time ministerial attention.
This intelligence-only approach goes back to the Helen Clark Labour government days. Ms Clark revived her support for that narrow focus recently. The problem is, she has been out of office since 2008 and in the intervening years, the world has changed comprehensively.
China and Russia are more aggressive. The Middle East grows even more alarming. Only this week 16 Chinese air force aircraft flew deliberately through Malaysian air space – another demonstration of territorial aspirations.
As officials have explained to ministers, Five-Eyes has evolved into a much broader forum where Australia, Britain, Canada, the US and NZ enjoy high-level exchanges across a range of policies and developments. For NZ this is invaluable. We are not members of the G7 or the G20 and hold only supporting roles in bodies such as NATO, yet here we have this ready-made entrée, a seat and a voice at the table with the West’s most influential democracies.
At Queenstown, PM Adern said all the right things about China alongside Morrison. We received the ritual toweling by Beijing.
The change in attitude towards China follows hard-nosed briefings by officials including access to top-secret intelligence information which we understand made ministers’ eyes water. Trade minister Damien O’Connor has yet to adopt the new line, but he is speaking to a NZ audience as well.
The PM has yet to find her register with the United States. She’s had one call with President Joe Biden before he was inaugurated.
Washington DC was ruffled by NZ’s early reluctance to join Five-Eyes statements over China’s human rights policies and the need for a better probe into the Covid-19 virus from Wuhan. In the case of the latter, this was a simple but consequential bad, faulty handling of the issue between ministerial offices.
The limp excuse that NZ health officials had to make their own call fooled no one.
The US can hardly take too hard a line over NZ trade with China. Wall Street is baling into China as fast as it can.
Goldman Sachs launched a wealth partnership with the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Black Rock has received approval for a wealth management partnership with China Construction Bank and JP Morgan Asset Management will invest $US415m in China Merchants Bank’s wealth unit.
If there was a difference between Ardern and Morrison it might have been on defence. For decades, Canberra has argued NZ’s needs to spend more.
Our government says the 2019 defence re-equipment programme is under way with new aircraft and the start of new ship design as well as more and better army equipment. But this year’s defence budget is spartan and MoD/NZDF is having to review much of the longer-term plan.
There’s little lean in the budget – in fact some say there is nothing to cover for the introduction of the Boeing P-8A Poseidons in terms of operational budgets.
Might they end up parked at Ohakea rather like the A-4 Skyhawks after Labour’s policy committee decided we no longer needed a strike force?
The Budget is full of references to “people and establishment”. Also, the government’s decision to extend the appointments of chief of staff has hit hard various succession plans which affected careers. No wonder some hard-core essential middle-ranking officers are contemplating life outside the service.
From the election, there have been concerns about the world views of ministers, given most had had no broader experience of life let alone portfolios beyond the coastline.
The curious arrangement whereby PM Ardern looks after the major foreign partners and Mahuta the rest is yet to settle down. Neither have travelled – nor show any sign of wanting to see what the world looks like outside.
The stock reason given is that the “electorate expects them to be at home” coping with Covid. In foreign affairs, time waits for no minister.