Comment: Speak out for us

Winston Peters' early audition as our Prime Minister did not go well. Now he is formally our leader, he should lose his tone deafness and come out against Donald Trump's awful policy of taking kids away from their parents, Bernard Hickey argues.

Comment: There is nothing much we can do here at the bottom of the world, except for speaking out to tell a friend when they're taking the wrong path.

There's not much we can do as individuals even, but we should expect our leaders to bottle how we're feeling and speak out on our behalf with one voice. That leader should have been our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

She was the only New Zealander (apart from Bob Charles) that the US President might recognise, let alone listen to. She has spoken to Trump and is rightly the person who can tell him that what he is doing not just wrong, but is inhumane. It is obscene. It is not the action of a civil society. It is the act of a sociopathic nation led by bullying narcissist who is betraying his own nation's values, let alone those of the civilised and developed world.

Unfortunately, Winston Peters (Deputy Prime Minister at the time) misread the mood of the situation badly on Tuesday and almost as badly on Wednesday when he described the forced removal of children as an "internal matter" that he was watching, but had no plans to take action such as calling in the US Ambassador in New Zealand Scott Brown to register a protest.

He said when first asked about the horrific scenes emerging of toddlers being held alone in cages, crying, that it was a decision "for the US congress and the US Supreme Court" - not him.

This is not true. The decision is based on laws set by Congress, but the actions taken by immigration officials on the border were ordered by the White House and the Trump administration as the executive.

"I could have views on every other country in the world, but we're trying to run this country," Peters said, adding that New Zealand would not take the same actions.

Peters said on Wednesday there was "not a cabinet minister or member of Parliament that was not concerned about it.

"We're watching the US debate which is raging at this time in Congress with serious interest and we'll see what the outcome is," he said.

However, Peters appeared to rule out calling in US Ambassador Scott Brown to express New Zealand's concerns, saying: "Look we're not going to have a contest to see who's most outraged."

This is not the behaviour of a leader who is listening and understands how just about everyone feels about it.

It was the behaviour of an irritable and reactive politician who has become too used to treating bigger powers with deference. He is like the grumpy uncle who refuses to throw the ball back over the fence and stomps off to water his begonias.

Even Simon Bridges, who has struggled to connect with a broad swathe of New Zealanders personally, struck a more thoughtful and resonant tone.

"I put myself in the situation, what would I do if I was a leader in that situation and we had an analogous situation in New Zealand. I don't think I could stand for that," he said.

"To see families separated, to see children separated from their parents - it's inhumane."

Trump is different

Donald Trump is beyond being treated just like any other leader. He has stopped treating everyone else like adults who deserve respect and a hearing. Now he is tearing children away from their parents and blaming the outcome on others. That is not leadership. It's child abuse.

When we see a neighbour abusing a child and see that none of the neighbour's family is intervening, the least we can do is kick up a stink and call the police. Or something. Just sitting on the other side of the fence and saying it's an internal matter and that there's nothing we could do or say is an abdication of humanity. It's not leadership.

Trump has broken all the rules of diplomacy in the last month, let alone since he won the US Presidential election in November 2016.

Rightly, leaders like Angela Merkel and even Theresa May have started calling the man exactly what he is: a narcissist and a bully. They are standing up to him more often, as was famously seen in this photo sent out by Merkel's press office after the disastrous G7 meeting earlier this month.

Merkel has given up playing nice with Trump, and she is right to stand up to him.

I understand why small countries don't often confront large ones on human rights issues. New Zealand has certainly not been at the vanguard of critics of China's human rights record in recent years. We know it would hurt us, and it would offend a country which sees itself as having helped a smaller neighbour.

But America is now off the reservation. We don't have much lose.

Trump pulled out of the TPP as an opening flourish and has treated America's trading partners with contempt, ridicule and ridiculous statements ever since his election.

He wants to punish and provoke his partners. So why should we even think twice before standing up to him.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronts Donald Trump at the G7 meeting in Canada. Photo by Germany's official photographer, Jesco Denzel. Itwas released on Twitter by Merkel's press liaison person, Steffen Seibert.

'It's time to step up'

That's why I was so surprised Jacinda Ardern did not step up earlier this week.

She was at home awaiting the birth of her first child on Tuesday and Wednesday and has not been in Parliament or chairing the cabinet over the last week. But she was still working and was still officially the Prime Minister. She handed over those duties on Thursday morning as she arrived at Auckland hospital.

Her office was asked repeatedly on Wednesday whether she would speak out as Prime Minister. Her office said Peters was speaking on behalf of her.

This is not Ardern's normal approach.

She has not been afraid to stand up for a more humane approach when talking to New Zealand's biggest and most important allies. She did not resile from criticising Australia's treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island.

Ardern even delivered a sick-burn to Trump's face when they first met in November, firing back at him when Trump suggested her election had caused "a lot of upset in her country."

“I said, ‘Well, you know, only maybe 40 per cent’, then he said it again and I said, ‘You know’, laughing, ‘no-one marched when I was elected’," Ardern told Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva.

That's the Ardern we know. Friendly, but a little bit steely, and not willing to take a step back.

Where is she now?

Understandably, she may not have been up for a news conference or a visit from Scott Brown to her home in Wellington, but she could at least put out a considered and strong statement condemning Trump's inhumanity.

That was the least we expected.

That would reflect how we feel. Because that's what we expect our leaders to do: to speak for us with one voice against the rogues and bullies.

Now it's up to the grumpy uncle to step up and be that leader.

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