Saturday, April 22, 2006

Fran O'Sullivan: NZ Inc presents united front in Washington

The Government has put the ball clearly in the United States' court over long-standing irritants in the bilateral relationship.

And just six months after the election it is clear the major fault-lines that had emerged between Labour and National are rapidly closing.

In Washington this week Labour's Phil Goff and National's Don Brash presented an NZ Inc face to the Bush Administration in a series of separate high-level bilateral meetings before the inaugural United States-New Zealand Partnership Forum began.

Goff has already faced up to a US request to "have a conversation" with New Zealand on issues such as the anti-nuclear policy, which has long been a thorn in the Americans' paw. Instead of waiting for the US to pose questions he initiated discussions directly with the Bush Administration's hardman.

It's too early to tell yet if US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was convinced by Goff's importunings. That is not expected to filter out for some time until the Pentagon and the US State Department have had time to consider all Goff's messages.

What is at issue is whether the US will simply "return service" or get into a lengthy but much more friendly game with New Zealand, where both parties really benefit.

The original US request was tabled last year by former US Ambassador Charles Swindells and re-emphasised by his successor Bill McCormick. But the US moves were dismissed then as an attempt to interfere in New Zealand's domestic affairs - not simply a polite request to talk about the "dead cat on the table" that the policy had clearly become after some 20 years of mutual stewing.

From the smaller partner's perspective it is important that New Zealand is seen to be driving the effort to transform the bilateral relationship, and in Goff's words "establish a new foundation" for a 21st century which presents a whole series of shared security and economic challenges to both countries.

US officials had repeatedly let it be known they were concerned that a country that wanted to forge a closer trading relationship with the US would not even "hold a conversation" about the major irritant in the relationship.

But the "undiscussables" that used to irritate US politicians and officials are now clearly on the table - put there by our Defence Minister.

Brash has resisted the temptation to undermine the Labour Government's new frankness, instead playing a longer-term game in New Zealand's overall interest.

After the heat and bitterness of the election-time rhetoric this is a refreshing change. And, frankly, a necessary one if this country were not to continue to run the risk that the US - or, for that matter, any other major power such as China - would play Labour and National off against each other in pursuit of its own self-interest while our major parties scored cheap political points. This is a risk both politicians concede.

My own soundings indicate the Labour Cabinet ministers - who had painted Brash as an American lapdog during the heat of the election campaign and accused him of trying to sell out New Zealand's iconic anti-nuclear policy to get better market access to the United States - have, in fact, been quietly talking for some months with his key foreign policy and trade advisers, Murray McCully and Tim Groser.

At issue was how to put the politicking behind them after the electorate's clear indication it was not keen on National's plans for a public referendum on the policy which has been such an obvious thorn in the bilateral relationship since the ban on nuclear ship visits was imposed nearly two decades ago.

This did not come out at the time but was clearly part of the sub-text to McCully's announcement that he wanted National to execute an about-turn on the referendum plans earlier this year. It also enabled both Labour and National politicians to take a much more confident approach to the frank discussions over the relationship which were expected to be aired at the forum, safe in the knowledge that a united front could be presented in this area.

Brash says National will also underline this bipartisan approach in discussions with other foreign partners such as China. Goff is resisting the temptation to crow over National's about-face.

It was Goff, after all, who ignored diplomatic convention two years ago and released the transcript of notes taken by a Foreign Affairs official which said Brash had told some visiting US Republican senators that if it were up to him the nuclear ships ban would be "gone by lunchtime".

Brash then had to face down further attacks when Labour alleged that a US billionaire was pulling National's policy strings in return for campaign funds.

The upshot was that Brash was unable to get electoral purchase for his party's pledge to hold a referendum on whether to change the nuclear policy.

But both sides clearly believe that realpolitik dictates it is in New Zealand's interests to have a strong relationship with the world's superpower.

There are still minor nuanced differences which will inevitably be probed by State Department officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who has harboured grievances over the policy, and Assistant Secretary of State (East Asian and Pacific Affairs) Christopher Hill, who is the "point man" for the bilateral relationship.

But for now Labour and National are virtually on the same page.


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