Questions are being asked in Wellington about just how much influence NZ First Leader and currently acting Prime Minister Winston Peters has within the coalition Government.
They have sprung from the Defence Policy Statement with its strong criticism of China which contrasts with the Clark Labour Government being the first to achieve a free trade agreement with China.
Now the Ardern Government is facing a series of critical statements from Beijing and Opposition Leader Simon Bridges is arguing that a proposed upgrade of the Free Trade Agreement is now at risk.
But there is speculation that the recent policy statement owes more to NZ First thinking than to Labour’s.
And with that comes a question as to whether Peters is not having a disproportionate influence on the Government.
Peters himself seemed to encourage that speculation with comments he made yesterday on an Auckland radio show.
Asked by Newstalk ZB host, Leighton Smith, how much sway he believed he had in the current Government, Peters initially answered: “no more than we should have.”
But he went on.
“It’s more than our percentage because we were the critical party that had a choice of going one way or the other.
“So whatever your percentage is, multiply it because it is far more influential than parties with no option.”
That appeared to be a reference to the Greens who prior to the last election campaign ruled out any deal with National.
But he then said that in the current environment politicians in the Government could not throw their weight around.
The first basis for any decision was the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First, he said.
“But if is not in the coalition agreement and we have come to an agreement collectively then fine, but it cannot be I will just take the steps myself and you can all follow me whether you like it or not.
“That doesn’t work.
“The third option is highly dangerous.”
Smith challenged Peters over his refusal before the election to specify which party he would be willing to go into Government with.
“Let me ask you this,” he replied.
“If you were going into negotiations and you had options would you declare what the outcome was going to be before you started negotiating.
“And if you did that do you think you would have any chance of getting the policies you wanted.”
In many ways, none of what Peters said was new.
But now he is acting Prime Minister and given that a major foreign policy shift has happened on his watch his comments take on a new weight.
Opposition Leader Simon Bridges says it is clear there is a much more critical stance on China coming through from Peters.
“He is, it seems, quite clearly behind this Defence paper,” he told RNZ’s Morning report.
But Bridges said Peters was making deliberately obtuse comments about the paper.
“The Defence paper is quite evident in its criticism, but he won’t bring himself to be in that space.
“That is worrying because we all deserve – in fact, China deserves – a clear position from New Zealand.”
And in what looks like opening up a significant difference between the Government and the Opposition, Bridges, said he did not think he would have gone as far as the language in the defence paper.
“The reality is that we have had a position over time of being independent in our foreign policy and honest brokers.
“But be really clear we call China out when we disagree with them, on the South China Sea, for example.”
Bridges said that instead of clarity we had the worst of both worlds.
“We have this shadow boxing by the acting Prime Minister where China, New Zealanders and the National Party are left to be reading the tea leaves.”
And Bridges argued that the current standoff with China would have economic implications for New Zealand.
“We have got a Free Trade Agreement upgrade coming along, and if you are sitting there in China’s position, they look at this, they are trying to work out what we are doing, I don’t think they will be in a position or a mood to do us any favours.”
It is widely known among those who follow trade negotiations that China has little to gain from any upgrade of the Free Trade Agreement; its agreement to negotiate it was, in essence, a political favour to a country it has considered a friend in the South Pacific.
That is why the question being asked now is how much this new attitude towards China is a New Zealand First policy and how much it is a Government policy.