Monday, March 20, 2006

Editorial: Our man on the sidelines

Winston Peters has proven one thing. New Zealand does not, at this point, require a Minister of Foreign Affairs. Not while we have an activist diplomat as Prime Minister and a trade minister with interests as broad and deep as Phil Goff's. Try as he might to involve himself in international affairs of relevance, Mr Peters seems destined to be left on the sidelines while the Government's tag team, fully fledged Cabinet ministers, attend to the issues that matter.

The highest-profile diplomatic challenge this year was the conflagration over the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad. When New Zealand was drawn into the flames, it was Helen Clark and Phil Goff who led the fight to save the country's image in the Muslim world. By and large, they succeeded. Where was Mr Peters? Not needed, really. He might think that the priority was to preserve our export trade and that is Mr Goff's responsibility. He might, after just a few months in the job, have bowed to the Prime Minister's greater wisdom in these things. And he might, having stirred up feelings about Muslims in this country with an ill-considered speech last year about the many-headed Islamic hydra threatening our way of life, have realised he was not the man for that job.

Mr Peters has given one keynote speech to diplomats and academics in Wellington. It was a cautious run through the Clark-Goff principles of the past six years with some subtle Peters emphases and an odd little diversion to chide the US for not acknowledging this country's work in the Pacific. Odd, because the Pacific, the SAS in Afghanistan and the Antarctic joint venture are just about the only things that American officials do repeat about New Zealand in their attempts to look on the upside of a dysfunctional relationship. Odd, because Mr Peters had come into this (diminished) office fancying his chances of improving the tone, if not the substance, of the bilateral relationship. Odd because it wasn't an original line of thought: his boss, Helen Clark, has made the same plaintive noises privately in the past.

Since then Mr Peters has had much urgent public business at racetracks as Minister of Racing, and in the Pacific, as a roving envoy of indeterminate rank or purpose. There was a visit to Fiji, meeting the military commander among others, and last week he was around the isles again. As Helen Clark was meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the inauguration of Chile's new president in Santiago, and was then in Manila for an inter-faith dialogue, Mr Peters was inspecting New Zealand aid projects in Tonga and writing an article in defence of aid to Samoa.

All of which is worthy enough, but worthy perhaps of an overseas aid minister or an associate minister of foreign affairs or a parliamentary undersecretary. In mid-year, Mr Peters' big test arrives with a visit to Washington. He will have pretty tight riding instructions from Labour, so a broad smile will not be enough to engage the Americans in meaningful progress.

Should anyone be surprised at his redundancy? The same thing occurred when he was "Treasurer" to Bill Birch's Finance Minister under National in the 1990s. Mr Peters carried the senior title. Mr Birch steered the ship. Fast forward to this Government: the confidence and supply agreement that the New Zealand First party cobbled together with Labour was fundamentally flawed. No one apart from Helen Clark and Mr Peters really thought that the Foreign Minister could sit outside the Cabinet. It probably suited both of them for different reasons for him to be on the outer. It may well suit them both, still, for him to be a functioning supernumerary today.

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