New Zealand foreign policy: China, U.S. or a third way?

SOURCE: Kathryn George

So New Zealand. The American and Chinese Governments are having an arm wrestle for influence around the world and New Zealand and the South Pacific that we like to think of as our back yard are not immune from geopolitical rivalries.

We as a nation have a choice to make and one that New Zealanders are not all that well informed about. Our options are:

  1. Do we have a rapidly expanding trade with China at the expense of human rights where Chinese interests may try to start influencing our politics and elected officials, democratic process and be potentially hugely detrimental to the environment?
  2. Or do we go with America, who will look for our assistance in increasingly questionable conflicts that are unlikely to do either country any favours, and whose politicians are beholden to corporate interests that mean the coveted trade deal that enables free trade between the two counties, is permanently unlikely?
  3. Or do we take a truly unique approach and say no thanks to both countries – we will do our own thing, just as we did in 1985 with the French?

Chinese trade interests in New Zealand are not to be underestimated to any extent. In 2018 two trade trade between the Dragon and the Kiwi was worth N.Z.$28 billion and makes China our largest trading partner. Chinese companies such as Huawei have significant interests here, as do New Zealand companies such as dairy giant Fonterra in China. Chinese tourists are a rapidly growing market and two Chinese airlines fly into Christchurch during the summer season.

But there are significant problems with China’s influence. Its reach into the South Pacific potentially destabilizes nations that are essential to New Zealand’s security where they have helped to prop up corrupt governments and lend a legitimacy to Fiji’s dictator Frank Baininarama. China’s Huawei telecommunications company is trying to get the contract to construct New Zealand’s 5G mobile network, which would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to them. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether allegations that Huawei is a front for Chinese government spies. And then there is China’s abysmal human rights record – the nation that refuses to acknowledge Tiananmen Square 30 year down the road, and which claims the massive detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims is to protect the security of the state, is also constructing a huge dystopian computerized profiling system that using a set of characteristics against which people are graded, is potentially denying millions of Chinese basic rights and support.

So, that brings us to Uncle Sam in the United States. Good ol’ Uncle Sam came to our rescue in World War 2 by stopping the Japanese advance through the southwest Pacific. After the war we were invited to join the United States and Australia in the now defunct A.N.Z.U.S. alliance, which meant visits from U.S. nuclear powered ships, nuclear tests in the Pacific were something we sent Royal New Zealand Navy ships such as H.M.N.Z.S.’s Otago and Pukaki to observe. But following the disastrous U.S. adventure in Vietnam we began to question why the U.S. seemed to think war to be such an effective foreign policy tool. We began to protest U.S. ship visits and nuclear testing policy leading to the Labour Government of David Lange banning U.S. nuclear armed and powered ships from entering our waters. N.Z.-American relations turned chilly. New Zealand-French relations pretty much stopped for a while after the latter blew up the Rainbow Warrior in the hope of dividing New Zealand.

New Zealand and American relations began to thaw in the 1990’s. President Bill Clinton offered a trade deal if we let U.S. nuclear warships back in. We said no. Following 11 September 2001, New Zealand committed the S.A.S. to Afghanistan, where it performed with distinction in the early part of the conflict. During the 2008-2017 National-led Government of John Key, relations warmed further, though concerns continued to rise about America’s propensity for starting or – in this case – continuing wars that had no foreseeable outcome. A skirmish in Bamiyan Province in 2010 that left several soldiers dead was followed by another where S.A.S. forces are alleged to have shot dead several civilians, which potentially being war crimes would have dirtied New Zealand’s very clean record in war. During the same period we became entangled in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement which was a massive so called Free Trade Agreement that 12 countries would be party to, but which potentially called for compromises in the independence of individual nations sovereignty. Regrettably New Zealand, along with China and the U.S. signed this into being.

So that leaves with the options of turn left towards China, or right towards the U.S. But does it have to be like that? SHOULD it be like that?

Not necessarily. New Zealand gained international respect in 1985 when it departed from the U.S. nuclear umbrella and struck out on its own. It was not, contrary to the assertions of politicians at the time a cop out to the U.S.S.R., though their politicians might have looked on approvingly. It was a point blank protest at the prospect of nuclear war, at the prospect that the next war might be the last thing humanity does.

We can do the same again. We can say “thank you very much for your interest, but we want to do our own thing – the South Pacific nations need our help and that is what we are going to do”. We can draw a line under relations with both by setting down a minimum level of protection for human rights, by saying the more you exceed that minimum level, the better your prospects will become. But most of all we can start looking after NEW ZEALAND interests, and if that means keeping the Dragon and the Eagle at arms length so a plucky Kiwi can do its business, so be it.

Promotions and a demotion: Government’s mid term spring clean

Following on the heels of the National Party shadow cabinet reshuffle a few days ago, the Government has announced its own reshuffle. It comes amid concerns that Kiwi Build has failed, climate change emissions are continuing to increase and steady head winds caused by a slowing economy and problems with education, health and crime.

Perhaps the least surprising was the demotion of Phil Twyford, who lost the Housing portfolio to Cabinet heavy hitter, Megan Woods. It was not a complete loss however as Mr Twyford keeps his grip on Urban Development, picks up Economic Development and maintains his place in the Executive Council.

Ms Woods, who is already responsible for the Christchurch Earthquake as well as the Energy and Resources portfolio is one of the big movers in the Government Cabinet ranks. As the Minister also responsible for dealing with the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, she is one of the more trusted Ministers inside the Cabinet of the Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She now has three weeks whilst Parliament is in recess for school holidays to study the ins and outs of the Housing portfolio and figure out whether Kiwi Build can be saved or not.

There were other winners as well. Minister of Civil Defence, Kris Faafoi, who is widely known as the Minister of Everything, or as Ms Arderns trouble shooter for his ability to fix problems, has picked up Government Digital Services and Associate Minister of Housing. Another winner is Poto Williams. She has picked up Minister of Community and Voluntary Sector, Associate Ministership for Social Development, Immigration and Greater Christchurch Regeneration.

Some new comers who have not yet held significant positions were handed Private Secretary roles for Ethnic Affairs (Priyanka Radhakrishnan) and Local Government (Willow-Jean Prime). Deborah RussellĀ  who was Ms Prime’s predecessor moves to chair the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee.

The moves appear to have affected the Labour caucus M.P.s who are Ministers. The New Zealand First and Green M.P.’s who hold Ministerial portfolio’s (Winston Peters, Tracey Martin, Shane Jones and Fletcher Tabuteau from New Zealand First, plus James Shaw and Eugenie Sage from the Greens), do not appear to have been affected.

Despite that, I expect that they will have noted the changes in the Cabinet colleagues. With major challenges facing Mr Peters in the escalating U.S.-Iran feud, the growing urgency around climate change piling pressure on Mr Shaw and the Oranga Tamariki debacle leaving Mrs Martin in a tight spot, none should take their Ministerships for granted. All will be under pressure to deliver some significant results before Parliament is dissolved later next year for the 2020 General Election. If New Zealand is going to make inroads, these matters need results sooner rather than later.

Unifying the state sector? What does that mean?

It has come to my attention that proposals are being considered to dismantle the entire state sector and start again. The proposals come amidst continuing frustration over the delivery of services in social welfare, health, education, housing and a plethora of other sectors. But how much planning has been given to the proposals?

Continuing change, simply to say that the Government wanted to be seen as acting decisively on a matter is not helpful at best and possibly quite damaging at its worst. It leaves both the public and the private sectors wondering what is the aim of the reforms. It removes continuity of supply in terms of delivering promised services and at a quality that is acceptable.

This is not to say that I disagree with the proposals, as there is plenty of room for improvement in all sectors of Government and state sector is no different. But I wonder how much of it would exist if the Chief Executives and other senior staff in the agencies that operate in this sector were vetted properly. There are ways of instituting change in the public service without simply tearing it up and starting again:

  1. When agency bosses are appointed perhaps more effort should be made to encourage people from lower down the ranks to move up instead of hiring people not necessarily from New Zealand and potentially with no ability to relate to how their agency impacts on New Zealand
  2. Have them sign – if they do not already – a declaration of any prior criminal record, including being vetted by the Police in the same way that people working as teachers, social workers and early childhood education staff would be expected to
  3. Perhaps have a minimum of x number of years experience in the sector that they want to work in in New Zealand so that when they take a higher role they at least know about the sector

To some extent this is a great advert for something that is sorely missing in the education system, which Mr Hipkins also by chance happens to be the Minister for: Civics. We lack a compulsory Civics course in Years 12-13 at High School, which among other things could include a segment on how key Acts of Parliament such as the State Sector Act, the Social Welfare Act and so forth work – being high school students they would not be expected to know these acts intimately as I doubt even many experienced civil servants know the Acts as well as they probably should, but to be able to write a paragraph in an exam detailing the basics would be helpful. It would also help to unravel what I think is one of the great mysteries to the average person on the street – what does a bureaucrat do each day and how do they justify their job.

Mr Hipkins has a unique opportunity here. As Minister of two separate yet somewhat interlinked portfolio’s he has the opportunity to stream line certain aspects that over lap. By addressing the need for a Civics paper so that all New Zealanders are made to learn how the legal system Mr Hipkins might well be encouraging people to become more informed about the changes being wrought on their lives by Acts of Parliament. And if that makes them better informed about the state sector, all the better.

National Party reshuffle: Two retirements and a demotion

As happens every so often in New Zealand politics there is a reshuffle of either the Government or the main Opposition Party. Midway through their first term on the Opposition benches, National have decided it is time to freshen up their shadow cabinet, with two retirements and a demotion being the major outcomes.

Amy Adams, M.P. for Selwyn electorate near Christchurch has announced her retirement from politics. Mrs Adams, who came to office when National was elected to govern in 2008 departs after nine years holding some significant portfolio’s, which included Minister of Justice and Minister for Environment. During her tenure in both portfolio’s there were significant milestones introduced, which included expunging the convictions of gay men who have been charged with consensual homosexual conduct.

Mrs Adams however has been a less than effect shadow Minister for Finance and whereas past shadow Ministers for that portfolio have made a significant effort around Budget time, Mrs Adams seemed to be missing in action.

Her departure will be a blow for National. Mrs Adams has served it well and proved to be an effective Minister. I met her in 2016 at an event to acknowledge community radio, and whilst she was reluctant to get involved with the Amnesty International actions I was promoting, she did give me a good hearing without trying to interrupt or change the conversation. The Selwyn seat is one of the bluest in the South Island and National should not have any trouble hanging on to it. Whilst it has come and gone through the years and traded towns with neighbouring electorates, it has remained steadfastly conservative. The seat was formed out of a merger of the Rakaia electorate which used to be held by former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley.

Contrast this with the departure of Alistair Scott, a Member of Parliament who has gained a record for absenteeism, to the point of going A.W.O.L. when he was meant to be appearing with his leader at the Golden Shears International sheep shearing competition. During that time, his Labour Party counterpart Kieran McAnulty has made the most of Mr Scott’s absenteeism, and has in some respects effectively become the Member of Parliament for Wairarapa.

Belated recognition by the National Party that Mr Scott is at risk of costing them a seat, probably helps to explain his abrupt departure.

The other major mover was Judith Collins. As a ticking off for her attempt to unseat her leader Simon Bridges, she was stripped of the Infrastructure portfolio. That goes to list Member of Parliament, Paul Goldsmith, who has proven to be one of the more effective shadow Ministers in the 52nd New Zealand Parliament. Mr Goldsmith relinquished a couple of portfolio’s to make way for Chris Bishop (Lower Hutt)as a reward for Mr Bishop’s work on transport and police.

But is this enough to make National ready for the period from now until the 2020 election, or will Mr Bridges find himself having to make further changes. Who will keep the pressure on Minister for Kiwi Build Phil Twyford and Minister of Health David Clark as both portfolio’s stumble forward not really knowing what they are meant to be doing?

The wrongness of unifying Industry Training Organizations

It has been announced that there are significant – and controversial – changes looming for New Zealand’s tertiary education sector. And as I seek to enrol once more at a tertiary institution (Massey University), casting my eye across the landscape of New Zealand tertiary education I cannot help but wonder whether this is not simply a case of change for the sake of change.

I studied at the Open Polytechnic from 2017-2018 to complete a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management. My experience with the Open Polytechnic was very positive. The teaching staff are competent; queries I had were answered in good time and respectfully and I was appropriately resourced for the study that I was expected to complete.

Perhaps it is not surprising that I am therefore alarmed that the Minister of Education is proposing to merge all 12 Industry Training Organizations (I.T.O.’s) and 16 Polytechnics and Institutes of Technology (I.T.P.’s) into a single massive organization. Also not surprisingly, there are numerous agencies and industry sector groups that are genuinely concerned about what the proposals of the Minister, Chris Hipkins, mean for them and for the sector.

In fairness there are some institutions that need a significant rev up in terms of their conduct and one or two might as a consequence find themselves not able to satisfactorily meet the demands realistically expected of them. These would be the weakest links and as such, possibly made to close. But I cannot support the merger of all of the Polytechnics and Wananga into a single mega polytechnic. To me this is consistent with the old adage about putting all of the eggs into one basket. But it goes further in potentially causing job losses at established campuses that we cannot afford in a sector where understaffing is already chronic. It also smacks of another problem with which New Zealand unfortunately already has much experience with in other industries: centralization.

Instead I believe that urban areas with 100,000 people or more should have one Polytechnic. That would be Auckland, Manukau, the Napier-Hastings urban area, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. On top of that, a polytechnic that covers all distance and remote learning, which on current performance would be the Open Polytechnic. Similarly a condensation of I.T.P.’s might be necessary as well, but before that happens the Minister should reopen the proposals for further public consultation including listening to the very people for whom these institutions exist in the first place, and without which, they are nothing: the students.

Ministers and bureaucrats can have all the ideas in the world about how the teaching framework in New Zealand should look, but if it is not benefiting the very people it was set up to, then there is a problem. In other parts of the education sector we are seeing bad policy made without student input by previous governments starting to unravel, and with it their education is potentially unravelling as well. Which is not a good thing for any Minister of Education to have happen.