Over the past ten days Foreign Minister Winston Peters has:
- Suggested New Zealand is not bound by its Memorandum of Understanding with China over the Belt and Road.
- Refused to concede that Russia shot down Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
- Does not agree that that Russian interfered in the United States elections
- Defended President Trump’s 25% tariff on steel and 10% on aluminium.
- Suggested a free trade agreement with Russia would be as beneficial as one with the EU.
Last night Government officials and Ministers were trying their best to try and explain his comments away, particularly his advocacy of a Russian trade deal and his refusal to condemn Russia over the shooting down of a Malaysian Airways plane and its interference in the US elections.
The response to his comments on the American tariffs was more direct. Trade Minister David Parker simply contradicted him.
His comments will increase already existing concerns that this is how he might behave when Jacinda Ardern takes maternity leave.
He is said to have a tendency to operate without official advice and without bothering to use conventional policy-making channels, and his ultimate political yardstick is to oppose whatever the previous Government did.
There are growing concerns – even within New Zealand First — that his often erratic behaviour is becoming even more so.
He has backed off his Belt and Road comments to a certain extent referring to a “study” being undertaken which will ultimately determine New Zealand’s positon.
It is possible he is referring to the preparation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of an “Action Plan” for New Zealand which is required as part of its involvement in the giant project.
Asked on “Newshub Nation” about Malaysian MH17 which was downed by a Russian manufactured missile while over Russian controlled territory in the Ukraine in 2014 he said “you’re saying the person that set that missile off was doing it at the direction of the Russians.
“You’ve got no evidence of that. It was a former Russian missile, yes, true. But who was responsible for setting it off?”
National’s new Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Todd McClay, said: “If Mr Peters has information that clears Russia of involvement in the shooting down of MH17 then I’m sure the world would love to see it.”
Peters is, strictly speaking, right, the Dutch led multi- national inquiry into the shooting did not find legal-standard evidence directly linking the Russian Government to the missile.
“The New York Times” reported the investigation concluded that the missile system used to shoot down the plane killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.
“The report largely confirmed the Russian government’s already widely documented role not only in the deployment of the missile system — called a Buk, or SA-11 — but also in the subsequent cover-up, which continues to this day,” said the report.
“The report, by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and it is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle.”
Asked about Russia meddling in the US elections Peters said: “We have a lot of allegations, but we do not have the facts laid out clearly.”
That is despite the US Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, charging 13 Russian nationals working for a company closely linked to President Putin’s inner circle with interfering in the elections.
But Peters’ obvious agreement with President Trump’s imposition of 25% tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminium is more worrying.
The tariffs are unlikely to directly impact on New Zealand; our steel and aluminium exports to the US are minimal, but the tariffs may well force other steel and aluminium producers to find new markets and those markets could be in competition with New Zealand in Asia.
There are also worries that Trump’s unilateral action could provoke a trade war and could threaten the whole World Trade Organisation and its rules for world trade.
Asked about the tariffs, Peters told Newshub Nation: “Look, what’s Donald Trump’s biggest complaint? It’s that the countries that are shouting out free trade for America don’t take this free trade themselves. In fact, that’s New Zealand First and my complaint — that the countries that we deal with apply tariffs against us while we’ve given them total unfettered, free access to our country. It’s simply not fair. In that context, there’s something similar being said here, and it’s not Luddite; it’s not old-fashioned.”
He also seemed unfamiliar with what the Government has done – even which Minister was responsible.
Asked if New Zealand had requested an exemption from the tariffs, he said: “I’m not the Minister of Finance; you’ll have to ask Grant Robertson that.”
In fact, the responsible Minister is Trade Minister, David Parker.
Last night a spokesman for the Minister said New Zealand has formally sought an exemption from the unilaterally imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium.
“ The details around the exemption process are still being clarified by the US, but the President has indicated there could be flexibility for close security partners.
“ New Zealand is a close security and defence partner for the US.”
The spokesman quoted Parker as saying: “”I am also concerned about the secondary impacts of these tariffs regarding the knock-on effects on prices of steel and aluminium products around the world, including in New Zealand.”.
Mr Parker was aware that many countries are for quite understandable reasons threatening to retaliate with their own tariff increases on US products. He said it is important that everyone shows restraint.
“ A tit-for-tat escalation benefits no-one and hurts everyone,” Mr Parker said.
Peters has long advocated a free trade agreement with Russia even though the European Union Ambassador, Bernard Savage has said any moves made towards thawing relations with Russia would be viewed in a “very negative” light.
The Russian FTA is included within the coalition agreement, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said that a free trade agreement with the European Union is “top of our agenda” – and much higher than getting a deal with Russia across the line.
Asked on Saturday how serious he was about the Russian Free Trade Agreement Peters said:
“Well, we’re deadly serious about it, and I’ll tell you why — we had, for years, Tim Groser and the National Party boasting about the free trade deal they were doing with Russia, and we were doing deals with Russia when they were a communist nation. Then all of a sudden on the golf course of Hawaii, the whole thing collapsed. Why would that be? And the EU, who thanked us for what we did, then started attacking our agricultural markets. Let’s be honest here — we’re going to go into these conversations from here on in with our eyes wide open as to the facts and not pulling our punches. We might get a fairer deal that way.”
Opposition Leader Simon Bridges last night described Peters’ comments as “troubling” and said it seemed as though he was continually making policy on the hoof.
There might well be some in the Beehive who would echo those comments.