Week in politics: Defence a political hot potato after PM meets Biden

Analysis: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets US President Joe Biden in the White House, wrapping up her successful US visit, and China doesn’t get all it wanted from Pacific countries. Labour launches attack ads after National’s Christopher Luxon says his party will be swept to power by the cost of living crisis and two opinion polls show how finely balanced the main parties are.

Jacinda Ardern meets Joe Biden at White House on 1 June 2022

Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with Joe Biden was the high point of her 10-day trip to the US.
Photo: Joy Asico/Asico Photo

Ardern’s description of her meeting with Biden as “warm and friendly” summed up the relationship between the two countries pretty well.

There was, however, a reference to defence in the joint communique issued after the talks that some considered a bit too warm and friendly.

It said: “We acknowledge that… defence will become an ever-more-important focus of our strategic partnership,” RNZ reported.

Both countries would explore ways to combine operations and expand co-operation “as New Zealand takes delivery of new capabilities”.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman in Parliament's powerful Privileges Committee

Golriz Ghahraman
Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The Greens wanted to know exactly what that meant.

Foreign affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said she was surprised by the “unexpected degree of proximity” outlined in the joint statement.

“It’s announcing at its core that New Zealand is going to partner with a world military force that doesn’t always share our values,” she said, and the government must explain what was involved.

“Where are our bottom lines here? Because actually it’s not enough just to go blindly following the US into its approach when it comes to military or security issues,” she said.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare turned down RNZ’s request for an interview.

Defence analyst Paul Buchanan said the commitment showed the government was edging closer to the US and increased co-operation could see more enhanced maritime operations.

“For the left side of the political spectrum, this announcement is a nightmare because it appears to be putting us on a path to becoming full US military allies and, if nothing else, military vassals of a traditional imperialist power,” he said.

RNZ political editor Jane Patterson was at the White House and with the prime minister throughout the visit.

Read her report here.

It was the high point of the visit, which was mostly concerned with trade and opening doors for the business delegation Ardern took with her through several cities.

It went well, despite three of her group catching Covid-19 and the Air Force plane breaking down.

“The trip itself played to both Ardern and the companies’ strengths,” said Stuff political editor Luke Malpass. “Without sounding like a sycophant, it is difficult to express just how popular she is and just how effective she is at selling brand New Zealand.”

Jacinda Ardern and Kamala Harris at the White House on 1 June 2022

Jacinda Ardern chats with US Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.
Photo: Joy Asico/Asico Photo

Pressure on Mahuta over China

While Ardern was in the US, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was busy in New Zealand’s backyard.

He toured eight Pacific island nations and contacted two others, trying to persuade them to sign agreements covering economic and security arrangements.

“Wang secured co-operation agreements with Samoa and Kiribati after officially signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands,” RNZ reported.

“China was unable to get its broader regional agreement signed by Pacific countries, however.”

This handout photo taken and released by the Pacific Islands Forum on May 29, 2022 shows Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna (R) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) posing for photographs during their meeting in Fiji's capital city of Suva. (Photo by Handout / Pacific Islands Forum / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /  Pacific Islands Forum - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - NO ARCHIVE

Wang Yi with Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Henry Puna.
Photo: AFP / Pacific Islands Forum

According to a Stuff report, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told a press conference the Pacific needed “genuine partners, not superpowers that are super-focused on power”.

Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa said major powers were playing geopolitics and Pacific countries needed to consult and speak with “a combined voice”.

That’s going to happen at the upcoming Pacific Island Forum which Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta will attend.

When Parliament resumed on Tuesday opposition parties again criticised her for being “missing in action” and having failed to respond to Wang’s tour by going to Pacific countries herself as Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong had.

Mahuta insisted she was up to speed with developments, had been talking to Pacific leaders, and would do so again at the forum meeting.

Wang’s failure to achieve his regional objective took some of the heat out of the situation but National and ACT will closely watch the government’s progress in countering China’s bid to extend its influence.

China is doing its best to show itself as a benign partner. Its ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Xiaolong, said in an interview with Stuff that claims China was seeking a “sweeping security deal” was a mischaracterisation.

“We’re not seeking greater influence or competition, what we’re trying to do is to extend greater support to our developing country partners in our pursuit of longer term and wider sustainable development,” he said.

Luxon hammering spending, cost of living message

It wasn’t the biggest deal for the opposition this week. That was still the cost of living crisis which National and ACT say is being fuelled by excessive and irresponsible government spending.

At question time in Parliament, and during the Budget debate, National MPs lashed the government and cited rising interest rates as the latest burden for mortgage holders.

Clearly, they think they’re on to a good thing, and National’s leader Christopher Luxon made it very clear why that is.

Speaking at the National Party’s Central North Island conference in Hamilton at the weekend, he told party members: “The cost of living crisis – that’s how we’ll win this election.”

Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon is taking his message out around the country.
Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson criticised Luxon at the post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, accusing him of playing politics with an issue that was affecting people’s lives.

Labour launched ads on social media showing a mock-up National Party campaign poster with a smiling Luxon and his quote about winning the election.

It was captioned “the pressure that families are feeling from global inflation is all just a political game to National”.

The intention, obviously, was to show National gleefully embracing the crisis for political gain without a care for the people suffering from its impact.

Luxon denied he was using the cost of living as a political tool and didn’t know why Labour was attacking him. Really?

As National shows no sign of easing up with its campaign to blame the government for excessive spending and fuelling inflation, it is itself coming under increasing scrutiny over the validity of its claims.

The Herald’s business editor at large, Liam Dann, said all the political discontent at the moment was around inflation.

“The National Party is doing a very good job of creating the impression that government spending is to blame for it,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s true. At least I don’t think current fiscal policy’s influence on inflation is materially different to what National’s would be.”

Dann said that with a clear, simple message, constantly repeated, National was getting good traction from a public looking for something to blame for inflation.

He thought that was evidence of Luxon’s strength at “selling a story”.

“His time in business managing retail brands for global food giant Unilever and at Air New Zealand have made him a savvy marketer,” Dann said.

Another Herald columnist, Hayden Munro, dealt with National’s refusal to say what spending it would cut, and why it was so reluctant to do so.

“Luxon is trapped in an odd little dance with the media,” he said.

“Seemingly every other day now, he will say that government spending is too high, then immediately have to follow it up by dodging questions about how much he thinks that spending has to come down, or what he would cut to get it there.

“Surely it shouldn’t be too hard to say what a better level of spending should be… so what’s going on here?”

Munro went on to explain what he thought was going on.

He said a recent survey by Talbot-Mills Research, released to its corporate clients, showed Kiwis backed investing in health, housing and education over reducing spending, and did so by a ratio of nearly two to one.

“That’s tricky for a party like National, selling a more austere agenda,” he said. “So, knowing their cuts will be unpopular, National is having to do everything possible not to have to mention them.”

Munro was campaign manager for Labour’s 2020 election win and now works in corporate public relations.

Te Paati Māori cast as kingmakers again

Two opinion polls were released this week and both showed that if an election was held now the result would be too close to call.

The first was the latest 1News Kantar poll which had National steady on 39 percent support and Labour dropping 2 points to 35 percent. The Greens were up 1 point to 10 percent while ACT was down 2 points to 7 percent.

When those figures are translated into seats in Parliament, neither Labour nor National would be able to form a government with their traditional partners.

Te Paati Māori, on 2 percent, would hold the balance of power. It was the third poll to show the party as kingmakers.

No caption

Rawiri Waititi, co-leader of Te Paati Māori.
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The second, run by Labour’s pollster Talbot Mills Research for its corporate clients and published by the Herald, had Labour on 37 percent, up 1 point, and National on 36 percent, down 1 point. The Greens were steady on 8 percent and ACT dropped 2 points to 7 percent. Te Paati Māori was on 3 percent.

On those numbers, Labour/ Greens would have 60 seats out of 120 and National/ ACT would have 56.

If Te Paati Māori added its four seats to the centre-left, Labour would lead the government. If it joined the centre-right both sides would have 60 seats and there would be a hung Parliament.

That was the fourth poll to put Te Paati Māori in a position to decide which of the main parties should govern.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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