Government not showing up on international relations - Luxon

2:32 pm on 1 June 2022

The government has been "off the boil" on international trade and security and needs to hustle harder, the opposition leader says, after the PM met with the US president.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The Biden Administration today acknowledged security and defence would become an ever-more-important focus of their strategic partnership with New Zealand, following the US president's meeting with Jacinda Ardern at the White House.

Speaking to Morning Report, National Party leader Christopher Luxon said the meeting was positive, but he was not impressed with the government's overall efforts on international relations.

"I think it's great for New Zealand that the prime minister's out there deepening the relationship with the US and meeting with President Biden, I think that's very good for us," Luxon said.

"We're a big trading country, we need to be able to do business all round the world, and frankly I think we've been a bit off the boil.

"If you think about the UK and Australia doing free trade deals with India just recently, and if you think about the US - having a free trade agreement with the US, there's a lot for us to be able to do."

He said New Zealand should be doing more to get the US to join the 11-nation CPTPP trade pact (The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) signed in 2018, which the Trump-administration withdrew from the previous year.

He acknowledged Minister of Trade Damien O'Connor had been overseas on a number of trade missions, but said that showed up the Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta for not doing more to show up in the Pacific as China makes its presence felt by stepping up overtures to Pacific Island nations.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"I think we've been disengaged, and probably with our borders shut very internally focused and not out engaging with the world sufficiently."

At the end of March, Mahuta visited Fiji and signed a new partnership statement with the country, and is scheduled to meet with Pacific nations as part of the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum. However Luxon had concerns Mahuta had not had enough contact with Pacific Island counterparts in the last few days.

"What we're seeing in the Pacific is concerning, 'cause it is threatening peace and stability in our region. There's two questions [to] this story: What is actually the state of our relationships with the Pacific Island nations - is it as strong as we think? Do we really understand how we can be good partners with each of them?

"And I think the second bit ... is that Minister Mahuta frankly I think has been missing in action, when you see the Australian foreign minister there [in Fiji in 24 hours] - Penny Wong, [and US diplomat] Kurt Campbell I think has made calls in from the US to those different leaders. I think we need to be really engaged, and we need to be up there now."

Instead, Pacific Minister Aupito William Sio was planning to go to Fiji today.

New Zealand needed to both uphold its independence and values when it came to international security deals, but also to meet existing obligations and ensure allied partners are supported, Luxon said.

The government's moves to support allies involved in the war in Ukraine had been "a good thing".

"We do need to make sure that we are supporting and we are bringing something to those relationships."

Under a future National government he would consider spending more on defence, but that would depend on the wider economic situation.

"There's an awful amount of dumb stuff going on across the spending in the government at the moment, there's a lot of wasteful spending and frankly there's a lot of money being spent with very poor outcomes being delivered.

"So there's a lot of opportunity to get savings on the existing spending that's happening in government. We'd have to look into [defence spending], but the intention to get ourselves on that pathway is a good one."

He said National did not have a position on whether New Zealand should try to join the recently signed AUKUS security pact between the US, UK and Australia, and said they would have to consider that.

The previous foreign minister, Winston Peters, told RNZ he was alarmed to hear Ardern's meeting with Biden would focus on the relationship, rather than delivering concrete outcomes.

"I think it's because they didn't go in with a plan of achievement, if you're going to give an apology before you go into the meeting as to what's going to happen, then that's the kind of outcome you get," he said.

"You've got to be in the face of the White House and its occupants every week, every month, about our part of the world."

The Pacific was the United States' neighbourhood as well, and "in that context I would have liked it that they were far more how shall I say it, aspirational, for better change", he said.

"This is not a sort of a television show, this is about real issues affecting real people and about the concerns for democracy and freedom and the rule of law in our part of the world. So you've got to go in charged up to get a change."

Backlash against Luxon's use of te reo Māori

Luxon confirmed there had been racist comments made on social media in reaction to a tribute he made after the death of Māori leader, Joe Hawke, where Luxon used te reo Māori.

The National Party leader said he was learning te reo Māori, but had not read the comments himself.

"I was told some of the comments were racist, and I condemn those outright, there's no place for racism in New Zealand. But some of the comments were frankly just directed at me, and were people having their point of view and their right to free speech.

"For me it was entirely appropriate to acknowledge Joe in te reo and I'd do it again."

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