Week in Politics: Ardern exudes peace while MPs come under fire

5:55 pm on 23 November 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Trade Minister David Parker's comment that New Zealand could be a bridge between the United States and China raised some eyebrows. Really? What might that involve?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, just back from the troubled APEC summit, had to explain what he meant.

For the first time in its 25-year history, the 21-nation economic forum had failed to issue a joint statement. Tension between the US and China over tariffs and WTO reform had bedevilled the summit.

Hence Mr Parker's interesting comment, which Ms Ardern told RNZ actually meant New Zealand could act as a bridge "in a very specific element of our relationship - the trade element".

The prime minister said she had seen a consensus developing at the summit around the need for a rules-based order.

"There is a group of people there saying there is no need for two superpowers to sneeze and the rest of the world catch a cold," she said.

"So there is a growing call, not just from New Zealand but from other APEC members, to say 'let's take a step back, let's de-escalate, because we will all face the consequences."

Mr Parker was playing a responsible role in WTO reform and there were "a range of issues" on which New Zealand was trying to broker a solution.

Ms Ardern was very careful to stress New Zealand's independent foreign policy and its neutrality. "It's not about picking sides, that is a contradictory approach".

So what Mr Parker apparently meant was New Zealand would work behind the scenes with other countries to construct a set of international trade rules designed to protect the rest of the world from superpower trade wars.

That's a noble aim which could take decades to achieve and would need the US and China on board. Right now, that seems a distant possibility.

Back home, ministers were being swamped with comparatively trivial issues - 42,221 of them in the year since the government took office.

That's the staggering number of written parliamentary questions National MPs have put in, which works out at around 800 a week or 115 a day.

The legitimate intention of written questions is to obtain worthwhile information, but that's a side issue and always has been.

Opposition MPs use them to fish for something that can be hyped up into a major issue, to tie up ministerial staff and hopefully trap ministers into signing off replies which turn out to be wrong.

That's what doomed Clare Curran when she failed to disclose meetings and briefly embarrassed Shane Jones for the same reason.

Labour did it in opposition but it's the extent of National's fishing expedition that has raised questions about the process.

At least two ministerial offices have had to hire extra staff to sort out questions and draft replies, more taxpayer money spent.

National's leader, Simon Bridges, says he has 20 more MPs than Labour and of course they ask questions - a lot of them.

Written questions are an ancient right held by opposition members and it's not going to change. Unless National's MPs run out of puff, ministers are just going to have to live with it.

Then there was the debacle of Shane Jones' pine seedlings. Not his, exactly, but 1.2 million of them bought by Ngāti Hine Forestry Trust with money bequeathed by the regional development minister for a planting project in Northland.

Most of the seedlings had to be mulched because land had not been cleared and $160,000 was wasted, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Ngāti Hine leader Pita Tipene took the blame for the land not being cleared, but it then transpired that even if it had been there wouldn't have been enough workers to plant the seedlings. Mr Jones admitted foreign labour, presumably from the islands, might have to be looked at, the Herald reported.

One of the aims of the project was to create jobs along the lines of Mr Jones original work for the dole proposal which had to be canned when Labour wouldn't buy into it.

It was subsequently decided that workers would be paid wages like any others.

The idea, however, was to get locals back into work, not to provide jobs for imports.

Mr Jones shrugged off the seedling fiasco, saying $160,000 was a backbencher's salary and the botch-up was "insignificant in the grand scheme of things".

When the planting project was launched, Mr Jones and his party leader Winston Peters were there using spades with their names engraved on them to put in the first seedlings.

Another minister under the gun this week was Chris Hipkins.

One of Labour's flagship policies, fees-free tertiary study for the first year, has so far resulted in enrolments increasing by just 0.3 percent compared with the same time in June last year.

National, which criticised it from the outset, used the figures to describe it as a failed election bribe.

The education minister said the small increase reflected the strength of the labour market, and more young people were going straight into work.

"We'll see the full effect over the next two or three years as behaviour patterns change as a result of fees-free," he said.

National will be keeping a close watch.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as NZ Newswire's parliamentary bureau chief.

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