Week in Review

Nats’ foreign policy raises good questions

National’s foreign policy discussion document contains plenty of unarguable positions, a couple of eyebrow-raising proposals, and one conspicuous omission. But the fact the party considered such a paper worthwhile should be applauded, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

Any foreign policy debate in New Zealand inevitably takes place within constrained parameters - and the launch of National’s discussion document on international affairs was no different.

A reference to protecting the country’s independent foreign policy? Check. Criticism of the UN Security Council veto? Check. A spirited defence of the “multilateral rules-based order”? Check.

Even Winston Peters found little to disagree with; speaking to media after the launch, the Foreign Affairs Minister’s main critique was why National had not put its money where its mouth was while in government.

Of course, that predictability is for good reason: consistency of message and a relatively bipartisan approach are what has helped New Zealand to maintain its relevance on the world stage, despite being a middle power at best.

But that does mean there was little that was truly contentious within Simon Bridges’ address or the expert panel discussion that followed - although there were a few proposals which would have led some to raise an eyebrow.

'Aggressive pursuit' of US FTA

Take the plan to “aggressively pursue” a free trade agreement with the United States, as Bridges put it.

“They clearly have history with us, we share common values, we’ve fought together, and what is also true is this is an $18 billion relationship with a superpower but that has room to grow.”

That all may be true, but given US President Donald Trump’s protectionist instincts and his administration’s ongoing trade war with China, now would not seem an opportune time to pursue a deal - something noted by former diplomat and MFAT official Charles Finny, who pointed out there would be “some very tough asks” of us in exchange for a poor agriculture offer.

Bridges was somewhat dismissive, suggesting Finny’s position was one “that some of the boffins will have” and pointing to the former TPP trade deal (now the CPTPP) as a potential template for a bilateral agreement.

That seemingly ignores the fact that the most unpalatable aspects of the TPP for Kiwis, including extensions to copyright terms for intellectual property and biologic medicines, were inserted at the behest of the US - and it was their removal following Trump’s withdrawal which made the CPTPP an easier pill to swallow for New Zealand.

Striking in its absence was any reference to the UN Migration Compact, despite National hammering away on the deal and its threat to New Zealand’s sovereignty in late 2018.

Then there is the proposal to double two-way trade with China to $60 billion by 2030.

Such an increase would undoubtedly be welcomed by Kiwi exporters, but the policy feeds a perception that the last National government was too focused on the economic dimensions of the relationship, neglecting the security concerns that some have raised under Xi Jinping’s rule.

Striking in its absence was any reference to the UN Migration Compact, despite National hammering away on the deal and its threat to New Zealand’s sovereignty in late 2018.

Bridges insisted the omission was simply due to the “starter for ten” nature of the document, but it seems likely that the backlash over the party’s position following the Christchurch attack, and the decision to remove its anti-compact petition, was also a factor (Bridges said his party would still withdraw New Zealand from the agreement if it won power).

Questions over autonomous sanctions go-slow

One aspect of the discussion document does raise questions for the current Government, however.

National’s foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay said the party would pass the Autonomous Sanctions Bill, allowing governments to impose sanctions outside of the United Nations regime - often rendered toothless by the veto powers of the P5 countries.

The legislation was introduced by the National government in May 2017 but has languished without progress ever since - it’s the oldest non-members bill yet to receive a first reading by a long way.

Interestingly, in late November 2017, Leader of the House Chris Hipkins indicated the bill would receive its first reading the following week - only for nothing to happen.

It’s hard to know why, although Peters received a briefing on the bill from MFAT in early December that year with some of its recommendations redacted.

Peters has suggested that the value of such a sanctions power would be limited if nobody else followed, but that seems a red herring given we would likely only ever pursue autonomous sanctions in line with our partners like the US, Australia or Canada, each of which has their own legislation.

Foreign policy is often an afterthought for politicians and the public alike, yet it is more important than ever in an increasingly unstable and complex world.

In some ways, that National’s consultation document exists is as important, if not more so, than what it contains.

Foreign policy is often an afterthought for politicians and the public alike, yet it is more important than ever in an increasingly unstable and complex world.

Talk about demystifying foreign affairs should be welcomed, as well as greater scrutiny of foreign affairs and trade decisions by Parliament (including the potential requirement for a parliamentary vote on all trade deals).

The claim that National “dramatically improved public engagement on trade issues” while in government should be taken with a grain of salt, given former trade minister Tim Groser was taken to court over his failure to release TPP documents (although McClay was a marked improvement as his successor).

But even with that in mind, greater discussion of the foreign policy decisions our politicians make, and the effect they have on us, can only be a good thing.

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