Week in politics: Prime Minister shines on the world stage

5:52 pm on 27 September 2019

By Peter Wilson*

It was a huge week for Jacinda Ardern on the world stage, probably the most intense and high profile any New Zealand prime minister has achieved.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with US President Donald Trump.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with US President Donald Trump. Photo: Supplied

In New York she met US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, delivered New Zealand's speech to the UN General Assembly, opened the UN Climate Action Summit, which she had been invited to do, and announced significant new backing for the Christchurch Call.

Those were the big events, there were other less important ones, and she didn't put a foot wrong.

At home, Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters talked about "mega Monday" and described her meeting with President Trump as "stellar".

There had been a niggle over whether it was a formal bi-lateral, which the government considered it was, or a "pull aside" as it was termed in the president's schedule. It lasted nearly half-an-hour and was attended by Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien. It was a lot more than a pull aside.

Discussion centred on trade, tourism and national security, with Ardern again putting the case for the long-sought-after free trade agreement with the US.

She described the talks as "excellent… perfectly productive" and she briefed Mr Peters immediately after it. He was ecstatic, saying it was "the most impressive meeting there has ever been with the United States where this country is concerned".

And he saw fresh hope in the search for a free trade agreement, reporting that Mr Trump had turned to his officials while it was being talked about and told them to get on with it. Whether that will mean anything remains to be seen, but Mr Peters thought it was significant.

"Since the request was made way back in 1939 by Walter Nash, the then minister of finance, to have a free trade agreement with New Zealand, the US is now listening," he said.

"The president's comments were absolutely and totally positive."

That may have been so, but the speeches Ms Ardern and Mr Trump delivered to the UN General Assembly showed the stark contrast in the way each country sees the world.

Ms Ardern spoke of the need for nations to work together to combat crises such as the 15 March mosque attack: "Experiences in recent years should lead us all to question whether any of us ever truly operate in isolation any more." And referring to climate change: "Our globalised, borderless world asks us to be guardians not just for our people but for all people."

President Trump saw it this way: "Wise leaders always put the good of their own people first. The future does not belong to globalists, it belongs to patriots."

Ms Ardern's meeting with Mr Johnson was held as the British prime minister was dealing with serious domestic issues. His order suspending Parliament had been ruled unlawful, and his determination to quit Europe on 31 October was about to be tested.

She described their meeting as "very friendly and productive" and they discussed the need to move quickly on post-Brexit arrangements between the two countries. It raised relatively little interest, and no reaction at home.

While she was in New York, Ms Ardern was able to announce significant progress on the Christchurch Call, her initiative to keep terrorist and violent content off social media platforms. Another 31 countries had joined the voluntary pact, bringing the total to 48 since it was launched in Paris in May.

"In only four short months we have collectively made great strides," she said. The US has not formally signed up, but Mr Ardern said its level of support was strong.

In Wellington, National Party leader Simon Bridges was totally negative, and that in itself raised comment. The Christchurch Call was "pretty nebulous, feel-good stuff that won't achieve anything" and Ardern had copped out because she didn't press Trump on climate change, he said.

The Herald's political editor Audrey Young responded: "There are times when the best thing the Leader of the Opposition can do is just shut up," she wrote.

"Jacinda Ardern had barely emerged from her 25-minute meeting with US President Donald Trump before Simon Bridges put the boot in."

Young considered Mr Bridges' "cop out" comment was the sort of reaction that could be expected from Greenpeace and she was right. Greenpeace did react, just like that, in a statement issued after the meeting.

Apart from Ms Ardern, the only cabinet member generating significant news during the week was Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi. He called a press conference to announce a new financial conduct regime designed to make them treat their customers fairly.

When the legislation has been passed - he hopes it will be enacted before the election - institutions will be licensed by the Financial Markets Authority and will have to meet high standards of customer treatment.

There will be a ban on Incentives for meeting sales targets, which Mr Faafoi blamed for customers being hustled into buying policies they couldn't claim on. Banks will have to beef up their processes for making sure customers are fairly treated and that complaints are properly dealt with.

There's a lot more to it than that, and the FMA will have the power to punish those who don't comply. Institutions can be ordered to take certain actions, fines can be imposed and in extreme circumstances licenses can be cancelled.

Faafoi said there had been a fair amount of pro-active effort since the government's intentions had become known, but there were some laggards who would have to quickly raise their game.

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

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