13 Mar 2018

PM defends Peters' Russia remarks

8:07 am on 13 March 2018

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is defending Foreign Minister Winston Peters over his recent remarks about Russia, saying she is not concerned.

NZ First Leader Winston Peters

NZ First Leader Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

On a Newshub Nation interview over the weekend, Mr Peters questioned Russia's involvement in both the US election and the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Ms Ardern was questioned about the comments at her weekly press conference yesterday afternoon, but would not be drawn on her own views.

"When it comes to the issue of other countries' elections ... it's for everyone else to make the judgment based on the evidence that's building."

She had read the entire transcript of the interview and Mr Peters was simply responding to specific questions, she said.

"It strikes me that a lot of the conversation the deputy prime minister was having was around ... New Zealand being able to access trade agreements in a fair way, relative to other countries."

National leader Simon Bridges earlier said Mr Peters' comments signalled a much more supportive tone towards Russia.

"There's some troubling alternative facts on the face of it."

Mr Peters appeared to have made some "pretty idiosyncratic" changes to foreign policy "based on what seem to be prejudices".

National trade spokesperson Todd McClay said Mr Peters was putting a free trade deal with the European Union at risk.

"Some of our closest friends and allies will be quite concerned about what they're hearing from the New Zealand government.

"They will be asking whether this is ... a change of direction or is it just a foreign minister who had a bad interview?"

Ms Ardern said the EU free trade agreement was still New Zealand's top priority and she was not concerned that Mr Peters' comments might jeopardise it.

"We're seeking a mandate this year to proceed with that negotiation and are very hopeful about that.

"The reason for that being a priority is significant, the scale of it is significant."

Other countries within Europe had traded around Russian sanctions, she said.

"New Zealand has applied the spirit of the sanctions, but of course we have a number of non-tariff barriers that apply still to us in that trade exchange that we're seeking to overcome."