Is the 'best' thing always the 'right' thing?

9:29 am on 1 May 2015

The Prime Minister has had to skirt a fine line between pragmatism and principle during his trip to the Gulf states this week.

Prime Minister John Key talks to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Naif.

Prime Minister John Key talks to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Naif. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

When John Key flew to Saudi Arabia, pragmatism won out.

The Prime Minister was reluctant to publicly raise human rights issues in the Kingdom, including its penchant for beheading people whose behaviour does not meet its view of the world.

Mr Key told reporters travelling with him he had raised human rights when he met the Saudi King Salman bin Abdullaziz Al Saud.

But Saudi's treatment of women was not discussed during their meeting, and Mr Key was careful not to publicly criticise his host's record on human rights.

It might have been difficult for Mr Key to have given any advice on the treatment of women anyway, given the controversy surrounding his repeated pulling of a waitress' ponytail at his local cafe in Parnell.

Opposition parties and civic society groups, including Amnesty International, had called on the Prime Minister to take a strong stance on human rights issues in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Key, however, was there for another reason. He was attempting to resurrect negotiations aimed at establishing a free trade agreement between New Zealand and the Gulf States.

The Air Force 757 that carried the Prime Minister's party on the runway in Riyadh, with red carpet.

The Air Force 757 that carried the Prime Minister's party on the runway in Riyadh. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Talks broke down in 2009, and he said Saudi Arabia had been the country which had blocked progress, apparently because one of its business leaders had been upset by the previous Labour-led Government banning live sheep exports to the Kingdom.

So while Mr Key talked tough in New Zealand about human rights violations by Islamic State when debating the Government's decision to send troops to Iraq he was much more reticent in the region.

Despite telling MPs he was not going to put up with beheadings by the terrorist group, and screaming across the Parliament at Labour leader Andrew Little to "get some guts", Mr Key forgot that advice when he flew into Saudi Arabia.

The Prime Minister has rightly argued there are differences between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State.

One is a sovereign country; the other a terrorist group trying to stamp its brand of violent extremism on parts of Iraq and Syria.

But often their methods appear to differ only marginally.

Amnesty International reports that Saudi Arabia routinely uses torture, and that it has already executed 50 people this year, most of them by beheading. Freedom of expressions is stifled and women have few rights.

Yet Mr Key went to the region not to promote human rights, but to push for a free trade deal. He was not about to put that at risk by lecturing the Saudi King publicly or privately.

John Key in Saudi Arabia

John Key arrives in Saudi Arabia. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

This has always been a problem for successive New Zealand governments: how to maintain trade relationships while still promoting human rights.

Mr Key has, however, made things tougher for himself by using such strong rhetoric and powerful theatrics in Parliament when condemning Islamic State.

He was always going to be asked about contradictions between his tough stance on those abuses and his willingness to turn a blind eye to similar abuses in Saudi Arabia.

Nor did it help that he went to the Gulf States immediately after commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign.

People had been told repeatedly the Anzacs had fought and died for the ideals that both New Zealand and Australia hold dear. Those ideals of freedom and equality, to name a couple, are not those valued by the Gulf states with which New Zealand seeks to expand trade.

From the perspective of Mr Key and the business delegation accompanying him, questions about human rights were irritants as they sought to do deals and make money.

The Green Party has a quite clear opposing view. It argues Mr Key should put human rights ahead of money.

The Labour and New Zealand First parties are also sceptical about the Government's approach.

It is easier, however, for opposition parties to raise questions of principle. They do not have to manage trade relations with these countries or deal with the realities of international politics.

Saudi Arabia, after all, is not the only country to use the death penalty, although its practice of beheadings is particularly barbaric.

One of New Zealand's closest partners, the United States, still puts people to death despite international condemnation. No one is suggesting this country should stop trading with it.

The Government appears to have an inconsistent approach to how it balances moral principle with economic pragmatism.

While Mr Key effectively ignores human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, thousands of kilometres away in New York, New Zealand plays its role as an upstanding international citizen by taking a strong, principled stance as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

Mr Key appears happy to put principle to one side when it suits his deal-making. But when it suits his politics, it is all about principle or, as he told Andrew Little, "guts".

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