Prime Minister shines again on South-east Asian tour: her deputy not  so much at home

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been snaring the headlines again on her mission in South-east Asia, celebrating the signing of an upgraded free trade agreement with ASEAN, condemning  the regime in Myanmar, and having a 10-minute conversation with US president Joe Biden.

Then there were the formal  meetings of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia. Now  she is seeking to lift trade with Vietnam. Still to come is the APEC forum meeting  in Cambodia, where possibly she will have  a  head-to-head with China’s President Xi Jinping.

She  does this so well that  some  of  her  countrymen  back  home  think she  should do it permanently.

But would those same countrymen accept deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson in the  role of Prime Minister?

Not judging by the criticis  he has been attracting while  she has been away.As Sports Minister Robertson  could  share the glow of the Black Ferns’ triumph. As Finance Minister,the report card was less favourable.

In his Saturday column in the NZ Herald Steven Joyce was particularly severe, contending that the failure to let the central bank focus on stability risks its independence.  

The headline neatly encapsulated the Joyce criticism: “Robertson sticking an Orr in on RBNZ’s role”.

Joyce argues the reappointmentof Adrian Orr as governor of the Reserve Bank by Robertson for a second term of 5 years is “troubling”.

“Because of the bank’s importance and independence, the appointment of the governor is supposed to be a non-partisan decision that both sides of politics can live with. For whatever reason, it is clear that for the opposition parties and many independent commentators that is not currently the case.

“A sensible finance minister concerned for the independence of the institution would have either appointed a new governor or reappointed the current one for a shorter term.

“I should stress the criticism is directed at Robertson. It is Robertson who appointed Orr  and the buck stops with him on  Orr’s reappointment”.

Business journalist Bernard Hickey told Radio NZ’s Morning Report that as an independent, inflation-targeting central bank, RBNZ had missed its target and the public were right to want some accountability.

He said while it had responded to the pandemic in a similar way to other central banks around the world, the various things it had implemented in addition to its remit of setting the official cash rate (OCR) had caused a “perfect storm”.

Hickey points out:

“The Opposition is now saying Adrian Orr is not just a purely independent apolitical person, he did so many things in concert with Grant Robertson, so many joint memorandums of understanding, joint letters, that he crossed the line.”

Claire Trevett, political editor of the NZ Herald,noted in her Saturday column that the cost of living is rated the top  issue for voters,with the economy ranking second.

She says polling  shows on the  issue of which party is  considered best at managing the economy, almost twice as many people believe National is best  at 47% to Labour’s 24%.

Hardly a  feather in Robertson’s cap.  

Trevett reckons the bluntest lesson—or solution—for Labour came in the Reid Research poll,in which an overwhelming 85% of people supported a  tax-free income threshold

“Labour has not ruled out some tax cuts in its 2023 policy, and Ardern’s observation that a tax-free threshold did at least deliver the same to  those on low incomes the same as high may or may not be a hint about what it is looking at.

“It may be Labour’s only  hope”, says Trevett.

So, with an election budget still to come, Robertson back at his desk may be telling himself “Don’t count me out yet”

NZ was somewhat slow in imposing sanctions on Russia – but we’ve been tightening the screws bit by bit during the year

We don’t know what impact is being made, but by Point of Order’s rough reckoning, the Ardern Government this week fired off the 13th barrage of sanctions and trade bans on Russia and Belarus in response to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to illegally annex parts of Ukraine.

The latest measures comprise

  • Sanctions which target 51 oligarchs including New Zealand-linked Alexander Abramov and 24 Russian-backed office holders in annexed areas of Ukraine
  • New bans on exports and imports of luxury goods like NZ wine and seafood and Russian vodka and caviar, as well as strategically important products like oil, gas and related production equipment
  • An extension of the 35% tariff on Russian imports till March 2025

New Zealand has now imposed sanctions on more than 1,000 individuals and entities and has imposed unprecedented trade measures which have resulted in New Zealand exports to Russia and Russian imports to New Zealand falling drastically, the Government says.

Russia triggered our responses on February 24 when Putin’s forces launched a full invasion of Ukraine, the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II.

RNZ next day reported that sanctions announced overnight by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta included a ban on export of goods to the Russian military and security services. Continue reading “NZ was somewhat slow in imposing sanctions on Russia – but we’ve been tightening the screws bit by bit during the year”

Musk of the Year

Elon Musk was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2021.  With his release of a peace plan for Russia-Ukraine, you wonder if he’s trying  for the double.

Not if Ukrainian president Zelensky has any say in the matter.

It’s usually sensible to be thinking about a settlement while fighting, but it’s dangerous to forget that, while politics is hard to control, war can be impossible.

Continue reading “Musk of the Year”

No, we are not a member of the Friends of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – but we are on friendly terms with them

We reported yesterday on the speech – a short one of around 500 words – which the PM delivered to the 10th meeting of the Friends of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty.

She said the gathering provided an important opportunity to reiterate New Zealand’s unwavering commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and she gave her audience a rundown on  our position.

But Point of Order could find no announcement that we had joined the group.  We were left to wonder if the PM was speaking as the representative of a member country or whether she had been invited among other guests who were attending.

We can now affirm that New Zealand is not a member. Continue reading “No, we are not a member of the Friends of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – but we are on friendly terms with them”

You can’t keep a good man down

Or a bad one up, it would seem.

Jeremy Corbyn has reminded us why Britain’s Labour party dispensed with his leadership after defeat by Boris Johnson in 2019, when he offered his thinking: on war in general and Ukraine in particular.

We can share common ground with his platitude that it is “disastrous … for the safety and security of the whole world”.  Like him we might want the UN to be “more centre stage”.  While being a touch more inquisitive as to why it languishes in the wings.

But probably not so much in agreement with his view that “… pouring arms in isn’t going to bring a solution, it’s only going to prolong and exaggerate this war”.  

Then again, it’s what some important people in the French and German governments seem to think.  They just know that they need to say the opposite in public.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump deplores other people’s pouring and reluctantly admits he needs to be holding the vessel.

And, like Henry Kissinger, Pope Francis wants us to not lose sight of the geopolitics.  He urges “simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good and bad, without thinking about roots and interests, which are very complex”.  

Unlike the Vatican, Corbyn has never understood the value of an experienced press secretary.

OK – these commentaries predate the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive which seems to be stunningly successful.

Doubts are growing about the ability of Russian forces to manoeuvre, to resupply and even to hold their ground.  We are reminded again of the projecting power of the US war fighting machine and led to speculate on the extent and nature of US support (a re-examination of the US influence on the remarkable transformation of Croatian forces during the Balkan wars might be timely). 

Indeed, it suggests that pouring in arms (albeit on a limited scale relative to Russian and Chinese resources) could lead to an early termination favourable to both Russian and Ukrainian peoples.

Putin has skilfully surmounted weakness before.  But this does seem to be the first time he has actually lost the initiative. His main electorate – the whole of the Russian security and governing apparatus – perceives risk.

All that stands between him and political defeat is the support of enough Russians for his goal of bringing the Russian people home.

Corbyn is surely right that you can’t control a war by pouring in arms.  Unfortunately, the non-controllability of war is not always a decisive reason for non-involvement.

Belligerents need to choose between limited aims.

As do non-belligerents.  

Nor does achieving limited aims guarantee the outcome you want (reference the oeuvre of comparative literature on the first and second world wars).

The Ukraine war is complex; people are dying; it has tremendous risks for Europe and the world; and it’s surely not the best way for settling disputes between the peoples of the former USSR.

But the institutions which place a higher value on human dignity have an opportunity to inflict a defeat on their opponents.  And you just hope that such an outcome is better than the reverse.

The US administration appears confident in its ability to calibrate pouring to achieve the outcome it wants.  And who knows, that might even bear some resemblance to those of Henry Kissinger or even Pope Francis.

Why Britain left

If you want a palimpset of reasons for why the UK brexited the European Union, look no further than Bloomberg’s headline:

“EU Will Propose Crisis Tool for Supply Chain Emergencies: Bloc wants ability to require certain orders be prioritized; Plan expected to be made public this month; some see overreach.”

OK.  And then the detail:

“The European Commission wants the power to force companies to fill orders within the European Union first during times of crisis, or risk fines.

According to a draft document seen by Bloomberg News, “the Commission may, in exceptional circumstances,” require companies to accept such priority rated orders of “crisis-relevant goods.””

Well it sounds reasonable.  But then:

“If they don’t, companies could face fines up to “1.5% of the average daily turnover in the preceding business year for each working day of non-compliance,” the draft said.”

Hmm. So that may be why:

“ … Nine EU countries — including Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands — warned this summer as the proposal was being drafted that it could overstep the bloc’s authority.”

The policy springs from the EU’s well-remembered failures in coordinating the actions of its member states in the early stages of the Covid pandemic.

If enacted, the powers to suspend private contracts and direct company production would represent a remarkable restraint – and indeed control – of trade.  But arguably on the lines of the powers of the US government in similar circumstances, its supporters would retort.

What is less clear is why the combined national powers of the EU’s 27 member states to manage crisis (under the wise guidance of the EU) are not enough.

The EU policy rests on the truism that because elected national governments find it hard to cooperate, power must steadily aggregate at a higher level. So far the traffic has been one way.

Now, while the UK government dealt better with the vaccine and medical supply issues that so embarrassed the EU, many would say that since Brexit it has been no slouch itself when it comes to generating bad policy.  

But you could also argue that it hasn’t built an instrument for its creation; that it is clearly responsible when it fails; and that it is less overt in taking failure as a reason to push policy further.

And these coordination issues are not mere technical problems, they are the essence of politics.

Take the biggest issue of the year: Ukraine.

The actions of the German government (and those of a few other European countries) suggest they believe their economic and security interests are served by appeasing Vladimir Putin – up to a point.  Others very much do not. So agreement on a meaningful EU common policy is impossible.

In this instance, you might agree that’s not good. But do the benefits of a political union which would allow a single body to enforce a common foreign policy (including say a decision to go to war) outweigh the costs of political diversity in a continental union with nearly 500 million citizens?

Great exam question. Discuss.  Additional marks will be awarded for incorporating America’s 250-year examination of the pre-inclusive proposition that all men are created equal.

So Europe’s don’t-look-at-us approach is less a weakness of the European Union, and more a reflection of the diversity of its interests (even if one believes some of them to be mistaken). And conversely, a common policy will arise from shared fear of Russian political influence, rather than different political machinery.

The belief that Europe’s problems are those of political machinery and can be solved by transferring power to higher and more technocratic levels to ensure uniform outcomes, starts to assume the dimensions of a category error (although the average Brexiteer could be forgiven for only intuiting this proposition).

Therefore Europe’s more sensible national leaders will, as Bloomberg reports, perform their traditional function of curbing the EU’s more outrageous demands.

Exiled from this demanding chore, Britain’s new PM will have the less-traditional responsibility of examining and disgorging political responsibilities and associated powers which accumulated during Britain’s membership of the EU and have yet to be reshaped. This will offend many people.

And the sheer scale and all-embracing nature of this task should not be underestimated. Just look at Boris and company’s tortured efforts to reach a compromise which keeps Northern Ireland embedded in the United Kingdom without a further decisive break with the EU.

Liz Truss does seem cheerfully ready to offend many of the right people but one fears that it may take serious economic weather before enough believe it’s really necessary.

In politics there are lies.  And then there are lies

Russia’s foreign ministry recently put out a handy three minute video to commemorate (celebrate is probably not the word) the 83rd anniversary of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin alliance on 23 August 1939.

As befits professionals, they try to avoid direct lies and use as much of the truth as possible. Inconvenient facts (like the division of Eastern Europe into zones of occupation, deportation and extermination) are omitted.  

But you have to pause at the concluding sentence: ‘Thanks to the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, the War began on strategically more advantageous borders for the Soviet Union, and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved’

So much to discuss.

Whether one should still call an arrangement for war a non-aggression pact; whether the alliance was strategically quite so advantageous for others; why that costly advantage (particularly to those rotting away in camps and execution pits on both sides of the demarcation line) was so spectacularly thrown away in 1941; and indeed whether the ministry’s final justification – that ‘ … hundreds of thousands of lives were saved’ – has any merit.

That question must certainly occur to anyone who has read Timothy Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’  which concluded that the interaction of the two dictators consumed some 14 million (non-combatant) lives in the geographies covered by the arrangements  – many of them in Ukraine.

The question would also have had a particular resonance the following day, which was the 31st anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

It is also exactly six months since Russian forces started their third invasion to complete the re-integration of the more Russian bits of Ukraine and neutralise the rest – within strategically more advantageous borders no doubt.

And perhaps that’s also why the foreign ministry chose this moment to signal that Russia doesn’t see a diplomatic solution to the war and expects a long battle.

Fair enough.  Vladimir Putin comes across as a keen student of Carl von Clausewitz and would surely agree with him that  “ … war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” 

And his overall political goal must be to convince those who identify as Russian that it is worthwhile continuing the struggle to unite them under his type of government. According to opinion polls, many Russians are sympathetic to this.

But politics works both ways and the progress of the war since 2014 indicates that Putin has also done outstanding work in creating a distinctive Ukrainian identity (one which appears to be shared by many Ukrainians whom he thinks are Russian).

Which suggests that if Ukraine can successfully resist, Russians might conclude that changing the Russian government would be a better way of achieving a sound long-term relationship than by forcibly changing the Ukrainian one.

That might also meet Henry Kissinger’s enumeration of the Western coalition’s logical goals of Ukraine as a “bridge between Europe and Russia” and avoiding a situation where “Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere”.

This leaves the initiative in the hands of the US administration who – despite the sterling efforts of British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and soon-to-be ex-PM Boris Johnson – dominate the supplies of money, weaponry, training and intelligence necessary for Ukrainian resistance and even resurgence.

Luckily, the Americans are playing a blinder on this (as they make clear in their conversations with the sympathetic folk at the Washington Post).  At least, if one judges by their disdain for everyone else.  

They take some pains in bagging Ukraine’s President Zelensky for failing to take their intel seriously.  His response:

“Zelensky heard the U.S. warnings, he later recalled, but said the Americans weren’t offering the kinds of weapons Ukraine needed to defend itself.

“You can say a million times, ‘Listen, there may be an invasion.’ Okay, there may be an invasion — will you give us planes?” Zelensky said. “Will you give us air defenses? ‘Well, you’re not a member of NATO.’ Oh, okay, then what are we talking about?”

The Americans offered little specific intelligence to support their warnings “until the last four or five days before the invasion began,” according to Dmytro Kuleba, Zelensky’s foreign minister.”

As the prospect of a long haul grows, both in the fighting and in the politics, we must hope that the Biden administration continues to perform to its own high standards (and perhaps even exceed them when cooperating with its allies).  Because there is potential for a better outcome than merely more advantageous borders.

PM traces shift in our independent foreign policy under Labour – and rails against ‘morally bankrupt’ United Nations

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, enjoying her  global celebrity  status  in Australia,  has  also succeeded in  clawing back  her  poll  ratings  in New Zealand.   According  to the  Roy Morgan  poll,  Labour has  risen  a  couple  of  points  to   33.5%  while  National has  edged  back a  point  to 39% since  May.

On the  Roy Morgan  sampling, the  Maori Party  would  hold  the balance  of  power.   Given the  apparent distaste of that party’s two members  in Parliament  for  parties  of the  Right, this could ensure  Labour  has  another term .

Ardern brushed off  a  question on the  ABC  about her  global celebrity  status, saying  her  total  focus  was  at  home.

“That  is  what matters  to  me”.

Nevertheless  her major  speech  in  Australia, to  the  Lowy Institute,  centred on  NZ’s  foreign  policy  and  traced  how  far   NZ  has moved since  Labour  took office in 2017. Continue reading “PM traces shift in our independent foreign policy under Labour – and rails against ‘morally bankrupt’ United Nations”

NZ Herald regards NZ and China as allies – but this doesn’t gel with the PM saying our allegiances are with like-minded countries

“Nothing like  a  trip abroad   to  put  a  spring in the  PM’s  step” – or so said the  sub-heading  on  a  report  in  the   NZ  Herald   on  Saturday  of Jacinda  Ardern’s  visit  to  the United  States, a  visit  which  by  most accounts  was  successful  in its  primary   aim of reviving contacts with  both  political  and  business  leaders.

Political editor Claire Trevett put it aptly:

“NZ was looking for new growth in its relationship with the US after the pause of the Trump era”.

New Zealanders, too, were chuffed at  the  success  of  the  PM’s  mission,  her  popularity  with  the  Americans  she met,  and  especially her chat with President  Joe  Biden.  The applause she won for her address at Harvard University in itself  was  remarkable, and   probably  stimulated  Trevett  to  note that:

“The Ardern in the US was a stark contrast to the Ardern we have seen in New Zealand in recent months”.

So, will  we  see Ardern back  at the  top  of  her  form,  now  she  is home  again? Continue reading “NZ Herald regards NZ and China as allies – but this doesn’t gel with the PM saying our allegiances are with like-minded countries”