• As he prepared to take over from John Key as Prime Minister, Bill English made a candid – and disarming – admission.  He felt that there was an important part of his new responsibilities where his knowledge was deficient and he needed to learn fast.  The deficiency was, he felt, in international relations.

    His admission was a welcome sign of humility and a refreshing change from the hubris of his predecessor.  So, it is somewhat surprising that, so early in his premiership, he appears to have authorised a foreign policy initiative that could not help but be controversial.

    New Zealand’s joint sponsorship of a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s decision to promote new Israeli settlements in the disputed territories occupied by Israel following their victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 was bound to create repercussions.

    It was President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, who were the main targets of Israeli anger – they had failed for the first time to use the US veto to protect the Israeli position and did so on the stated ground that they feared that any other decision would jeopardise what is often described as the “two-state solution” to the Arab-Israeli dispute – but it is not surprising that New Zealand’s role, too, did not pass unnoticed.

    It is not my intention to venture into what is an extremely complex issue.  But what is, I think, worth noting about the New Zealand action on this occasion  is what it tells us, if we are lucky, about the readiness of Bill English and his new government to think for themselves and to act accordingly.

    New Zealand successfully promoted our candidature for Security Council membership on the ground that we were beholden to no one, and that we would look at each issue on its merits.  The decision to promote the resolution concerning the Israeli settlements was a signal that we remain true to those undertakings.

    It is also of course a reaffirmation of our belief in the importance and value of the United Nations (pace President-elect Trump) and of our respect for international law.  The resolution we sponsored was remarkable only for the fact that it was passed, when its many predecessors had always fallen victim to the use of the American veto.

    Its terms have been supported by the great majority of UN members and are confirmed by most international lawyers.  But, from a New Zealand viewpoint, its significance goes beyond the detail of the particular issue, important though it is, because it augurs well for our readiness to stick to our guns and to face down, when appropriate,  disapproval from our friends as well as our (hopefully few) enemies.

    What we need, however, is not just a promising start but a consistent and steadfast determination to stand up for what we think is right and not to be bullied.  The challenges to this stance will, after all, keep on coming.

    And, sure enough, the next one is already upon us – this time in the field of international trade rather than politics.  But this time, the omens are not so promising.

    There is every reason, it seems, to take seriously the complaints of our domestic steel industry that they are being seriously disadvantaged by Chinese dumping of steel in our market, at a price below, by virtue of export subsidies, the domestic Chinese price; many other countries have had cause to make similar complaints.

    Our government’s predictable and legitimate response was to launch an inquiry as a prelude to action being taken by the World Trade Organisation – but that response was immediately met by a Chinese warning of trade retaliation.

    The government – Bill English’s new government – has now produced legislation to extend the conditions that must be met in order to prove dumping, in an apparent attempt to water down the protections that our steel industry is entitled to expect.  That legislation, which the Opposition has declined to support, is for the time being stalemated in the commerce select committee.

    What we need now, in the face of threats from a powerful friend, is more of the spirit shown at the United Nations, and less of the cravenness shown by the Key government over, for example, the Saudi sheep deal.  The new government has more to do if it is to earn its spurs.

    Bryan Gould

    31 December 2016

Leave a reply.