20 Oct 2016

English's meeting canned over diplomatic sensitivity

9:27 pm on 20 October 2016

A meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and two prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures was cancelled after he was told it could be 'diplomatically sensitive'.

Bill English 24 May 2016

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English. Photo: RNZ/Elliott Childs

The advice came from the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was on an official visit to Beijing at the time.

Martin Lee and Anson Chan were expecting to meet the Finance Minister on Tuesday morning, but got an email on Monday night saying the appointment had been cancelled because of an urgent matter.

Ms Chan was the head of the Hong Kong Civil service during the island's transition from British to Chinese control.

She and Mr Lee, a political activist, arrived in New Zealand this week after meeting senior Australian government figures to discuss support for democracy in the former British colony.

In a statement, Mr English said he could confirm "there was a meeting scheduled for Tuesday morning with two Hong Kong nationals at the request of a financial markets contact of mine".

"My office was contacted by the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressing concern the meeting could be diplomatically sensitive."

He said it was "not uncommon" for that office to provide advice on meetings with foreign visitors.

"My office advised me to cancel the meeting, and I made the decision to do so."

Mr English was not at Parliament today, so his Cabinet colleague Gerry Brownlee was answering questions on his behalf.

He said the decision to cancel the meeting was made after receiving "advice", which most likely came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

"Simply that Mr McCully was at the time in Beijing and that we wouldn't [want] any distractions to his bilateral meetings."

But Mr Brownlee said he did not want to go into details when asked why it would be a distraction.

"I'm not going to go into that, it's just one of those things, we don't interfere in the politics of other countries."

But he denied there would have been diplomatic aspect to the meeting with Mr Chan and Ms Anson, if it had gone ahead.

"I think that's leaping too far into it, these people travel to New Zealand as free individuals and they're welcome to come here, they're not guaranteed meetings with the New Zealand government though."

During parliamentary question time, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters accused the government of bowing down to China.

Mr Brownlee denied that, saying there has been no contact with Chinese officials in the time leading up to the decision to cancel the meeting.

But he said he did not know whether there was any contact with the Embassy after the meeting was cancelled.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs