Stay-at-home ministers are missing out on giving the personal touch to NZ’s foreign relationships

The reluctance of senior ministers from the PM downwards to travel too far – with the noteworthy exception of trade minister Damien O’Connor – is impacting NZ’s standing overseas.

True, James Shaw and his sizeable entourage are attending this week’s COP26 climate change-fest in Glasgow.  PM Jacinda Ardern wanted to attend COP26, we understand, but APEC is in the way and she will address the leaders’ meeting on November 11.

Why the reluctance to travel when every other country’s ministers are aloft and away?

Good question.  Even Joe Biden, who is loathe to travel offshore because of Covid-19 considerations for the 78-year-old US President, will be pitching his stall at Glasgow.

Some put the reluctance down to the strong domestic focus by the PM’s office under chief of staff Raj Nahna, who is widely seen as a Labour apparatchik from Auckland.  The communications team is headed by Andrew Campbell, who joined from the Greens.

They guard the gate closely and Grant Robertson is about the only minister with easy access.

They wield such influence that even senior departmental chiefs have to defer to them. In essence they control the inwards and outwards information flow.

PM Ardern is expected to be in Europe around mid-November. She will find the continent greatly changed.

The once impervious EU is now fraying. This began with Brexit and the wounds have yet to heal.  The economic powerhouse, Germany, is slipping behind and is respected chancellor Angel Merkel is about to step down.

Poland is resisting pressure from Brussels to allow its law to be superseded by the European Court.  Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has accused the EU of making demands of Warsaw with a “gun to our head”, urging Brussels to withdraw threats of legal and financial sanctions if it wanted to resolve the country’s rule-of-law crisis.

Trying to ease tensions in the long-running dispute, he says a disciplinary chamber for judges which the European Court of Justice found to be illegal will be taken down. But the commission has threatened Poland with sanctions after the country’s top court this month ruled that key elements of EU law were incompatible with its constitution.

The EU is grappling with an energy crisis caused by a shortage of gas thanks to Russia’s firm hand on the tap. The Financial Times reports.

“With all eyes on Russia and Vladimir Putin’s not-so-subtle solution to Europe’s energy crisis (approve Nord Stream 2, or else), the bloc’s second-largest gas supplier, Norway, has just had a change of leadership. Its newly elected prime minister, Jonas Gahr Store, told the FT in an interview that his country is not only helping in the current crisis with extra gas supplies, but is also looking at ways to be part of the EU’s transition to a carbon neutral economy.”

Principal calls for the PM will be Brussels and Paris.  French president Emmanuel Macron has already signalled France would not blackball a free trade agreement with NZ.

Reports from Europe suggest negotiations have reached an advanced stage and an in-principle agreement may be ready as soon as November 16, when Trade Minister O’Connor is due back in Europe.

Ardern will find ready listeners in Brussels/NATO, Paris and London when strategic issues in the Indo-Pacific are raised. Europe is disappointed and Paris furious with the failure of the US, UK and Australia to give an early warning of the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, which does not include this country.

Our naval contacts believe the US (and the navy in particular) remains cautious about Canberra’s ability to rapidly adjust to the challenge of going nuclear. Few believe Australia’s shipyards would ever have the capacity or the skills to build such a large and intricate vessel requiring skills available only in a handful of countries.

A host of issues looms, from the skills shortage and therefore the need to train nuclear engineers and technicians, to the question of waste disposal – and ultimate control of the powerplant.

But no matter the magnitude of the challenges for Australia, Canberra is now all over New Zealand in London, Europe and the US.

NZ has slipped behind the pack, at least partly because of ministers refusing to travel abroad.  Video and Zoom calls can never replace the personal touch.

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