The BulletinJune 11, 2024

Foreign affairs and Fieldays top of the political agenda


Christopher Luxon prepares to walk the diplomatic tightrope, writes Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A visit at home, and a trip abroad

For all the government’s talk of focusing on key areas like health and education, one of the areas it has undoubtedly emphasised so far is foreign affairs. The prime minister has repeatedly described Winston Peters’ tenure as foreign minister “exceptional”, saying yesterday Peters has travelled abroad more in the first six months than his Labour predecessor Nanaia Mahuta did in three years (Covid MIQ undoubtedly made travel trickier for at least some of her tenure). This week Peters is again abroad, visiting South East Asia, while Luxon is preparing for a trip to Japan next week. Later this week, he’ll welcome one of China’s most senior representatives – premier Li Qiang – to the country for a bilateral meeting along with events in both Wellington and Auckland.

The China tightrope

At his post-cabinet press conference yesterday, Luxon said the visit by Li was an opportunity to discuss areas of “shared interest” between New Zealand and China. “Our relationship is significant, complex, and resilient,” Luxon said. The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan this morning notes that this is first visit by a Chinese premier to New Zealand in seven years, and Li will face a “very different agenda” to his predecessor – including a government propped up by “two parties that have taken hawkish positions on issues close to China’s heart”. Acknowledging the consistent tightrope walked by prime ministers of all stripes, Luxon said yesterday he would bring up China’s human rights record during the bilateral engagement. “I’ll be raising all areas of difference we have with China,” he said.

The prime minister hasn’t visited China yet, though trade minister Todd McClay has. Nevertheless, the challenges facing the current administration remain similar to those faced by Chris Hipkins when he visited the country last year. The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire wrote about Hipkins’ China challenge last year, and the parallels are clear, with trade and Aukus both on the agenda this week much like they were in 2023. The South China Morning Post has focused on New Zealand’s position on Aukus in its report on Li’s visit. Luxon said he hoped to visit China early next year (if he gets an invite).

Asia a key target for the coalition

Writing for Newsroom after Luxon’s recent visit to South East Asia, Laura Walters said it was a deliberate tactic of the government to intensely focus on foreign affairs. The prime minister told Walters: “We want to be at the table; we have a lot to offer the world. We stand up for some great values… We never want to be brushed off or not relevant.” Luxon has repeatedly, including yesterday, described his government’s foreign policy approach as a “reset”. In an interview with Sky News’s Jack Nyhof last month, Luxon said the Indo-Pacific was where New Zealand’s national interests are “best met”. Perhaps one obvious point of difference between the current and former government’s approach to foreign diplomacy comes in the minister charged with leading it. This 2021 Newsroom report described Mahuta’s approach as focusing on “people, not nations”, while in a long form profile in The Post after last year’s election, the former minister told Thomas Manch that “culture matters”. The Spinoff’s Madeleine Chapman was part of the media delegation to China with Hipkins last year and described how the inclusion of culture via award-winning kapa haka outshone the prime minister. There’s little suggestion the current government views international relations through that same lens. “We’re not going to get rich buying things off one another,” said Luxon on his Instagram last night. “We need to go out there in the world and trade with other countries.”

Closer to home, Fieldays

The other big F on the agenda this week is Fieldays, the annual agricultural showcase that routinely attracts a large number of MPs from across the spectrum. This year will be no different, and Luxon will somehow find time to visit Mystery Creek in the same week he’s parading premier Li around the North Island.

But much like his government’s “reset” in foreign affairs, Luxon has long pitched himself as a friend to the farming community. At Fieldays last year, Luxon (then opposition leader) told me farmers were “the backbone of the New Zealand economy”. And, in what may foreshadow his visit this week, he said: “the answer is not to go cull herds and destroy farming because in doing that we make global greenhouse gas emissions no better and we certainly make New Zealand infinitely poorer.” According to BusinessDesk, the government is poised to reveal its finalised policy on keeping agriculture out of the Emissions Trading Scheme at Fieldays.

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