24 Jan 2020

Simon Bridges defends Philippines trip: 'There is a lot of common ground'

7:32 am on 24 January 2020

National leader Simon Bridges has defended his meetings with controversial conservative figures during his trip to the Philippines.

The Opposition leader and three of his MPs returned late Wednesday from a three-day trip to Manila where they met high-powered diplomats and officials.

Among them were the country's Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr - also known as Teddy Boy - and boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao.

In 2016, Locsin made global headlines after endorsing one of Hitler's genocidal policies, tweeting that the country's drug menace needed a "final solution like the Nazis adopted".

Pacquiao has also attracted criticism for his homophobic comments, once describing people in same-sex relationships as "worse than animals".

Both men later apologised.

Speaking in Auckland, Bridges said he was not aligning himself with those individuals, but it was worthwhile meeting with them.

"If you ruled out meeting with people that you had disagreements with on certain issues, there wouldn't be many governments actually you'd meet with in Asia, quite frankly."

Bridges said New Zealand clearly had some key differences with the Philippines on various matters, including their "war on drugs".

"Of course, we disagree with the death penalty. I made that clear in some of the meetings," Bridges said.

"But I don't think lecturing works ... we're not going to agree with everything, but there is a lot of common ground."

He referred to the recent terror attacks in the southern Philippines and the "delicate balance" between the United States and China in the South China Seas.

"Quite clearly, we've got a very strongly growing Filipino community in New Zealand. You go back a few years, it was 20,000 or 30,000. Now it's more like 70,000.

"For that reason alone, I suppose I'm saying there's a real rationale for investing in this relationship."

The trip was organised "for the most part" by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bridges said.

"Oftentimes, my colleagues and I have access to high-quality meetings, and so I think it's worth it that where we can get more senior calls, we should be seeking to do that."