30 Jun 2023

The Week in Politics: Success in Beijing, trouble at home

6:15 pm on 30 June 2023
(Clockwise from top left), PM Chris Hipkins in China, National Party leader Christopher Luxon, Labour MP Kiri Allan, an RNZAF Boeing 757.

(Clockwise from top left), PM Chris Hipkins in China, National Party leader Christopher Luxon, Labour MP Kiri Allan, an RNZAF Boeing 757. Photo: RNZ photos

By Peter Wilson *

Analysis - While Prime Minister Chris Hipkins succeeds in Beijing another ministerial scandal breaks out at home; National's Christopher Luxon is called out for trying to humiliate Acting PM Carmel Sepuloni in Parliament and there's another controversy over the reliability of the RNZAF's ageing 757 VIP aircraft.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' meeting with Chinese President Xi Jingping was, by all reported accounts, a success.

It took place against a challenging backdrop of superpower competition in the Pacific region, China's tacit support for Russia in the war against Ukraine and the fine line New Zealand has to tread with its largest trading partner.

When Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta met her Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in March she suffered an hour-long "epic haranguing", according to the Australian newspaper. Mahuta said their discussions were "very robust", which could have meant the same thing.

Hipkins' China experience was the opposite of that.

"China always views New Zealand as a friend and a partner," Xi said. "Your visit this time is very meaningful, especially countries in our region have been following your visit very carefully."

Hipkins didn't go quite as far as "friend and partner", instead saying "I would certainly describe it as a warm relationship and warm conversation."

Chris Hipkins with China's Premier Li Qiang

PM Chris Hipkins with China's Premier Li Qiang Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Their talks focused on bilateral trade and economic opportunities, with Hipkins emphasising New Zealand was "open for business".

He said he had "referenced" human rights - the difficult question New Zealand leaders always face after they meet their Chinese counterparts.

The atmospherics had been helped by Hipkins earlier declining to describe Xi the way US President Joe Biden had - as a dictator. Asked if he agreed with that, Hipkins replied: "No, and the form of government China has is a matter for the Chinese people."

Chinese media picked that up.

"The tabloid Global Times published an opinion column saying New Zealand's softer approach was a model for other Western countries to follow and strongly hinted that this approach brought with it significant trade advantages," the Herald reported.

Stuff's political editor Luke Malpass said China had mounted a charm offensive on Hipkins' trip - "lauding New Zealand for the way it has conducted its foreign policy, a tactic that is interpreted by some of New Zealand's traditional friends and Five Eyes partners as China trying to slowly wick New Zealand away from its traditional allies."

As for the way Hipkins handled himself, Newshub headlined its report "Chris Hipkins has passed his first diplomatic test".

The Herald's Thomas Coughlan said Hipkins had done his job in China, and done it well.

Jane Patterson, RNZ's political editor, travelling with Hipkins, said the prime minister had done what he came to do, concluding what the government would see as a successful mission within the bilateral relationship.

"However, there remain several gnarly areas of disagreement between the two countries and not all back home are happy with the lack of emphasis on human rights, and the warm words exchanged about the state of the relationship," she said.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon had rare praise for Hipkins. "I think the prime minister is doing exactly what we expect our prime ministers to do," he said.

"It's an important relationship for New Zealand, and it's one that does need to be maintained."

Patterson noted that Hipkins' meeting with the most senior Chinese leaders - he also held talks with Premier Li Qiang - should have been the only thing he talked about, yet he was once again facing questions about one of his ministers "hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons".

That was Justice Minister Kiri Allan.

Stuff broke the story on Wednesday, reporting a Department of Conservation staffer seconded to work with Allan chose to leave the minister's office early because of concerns about "working relationships".

Problems in the office saw DoC chief executive Penny Nelson take her concerns to Ministerial Services, which handles staff in Beehive offices.

Nelson confirmed that in a statement, saying she had become aware the minister's office "was not running as smoothly as it might".

"Stuff understands that other senior public servants - including from Emergency Management and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - have also voiced concerns about how staff were treated," the report said.

Kiri Allan in Select Committee

Labour MP Kiri Allan Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Allan was on leave from parliament this week, and after the report appeared she posted on social media that she had been struggling with her mental health triggered by personal circumstances.

The Herald reported the personal circumstances were the break-up of Allan's relationship with her partner Mani Dunlop.

"Allan confirmed the break-up in recent weeks, saying it was a personal matter and she did not wish to comment further on it," the report said.

Hipkins' office was the first to react to the Stuff report.

There had been no formal complaints made by departmental or ministerial staff about Minister Allan.

"Some issues have been raised about how to improve working relations in the minister's office. Work was done to improve the situation and no further issues were raised," the statement said.

Allan returned to parliament on Thursday, vigourously defending herself.

No allegations had ever been put to her that she had had to deal with on a staffing front, she said.

Asked if heads of different agencies had raised concerns, she replied "no, not once. There have never been any formal allegations put to me".

Throughout the questioning of Allan in parliament and Hipkins in China, the emphasis was on no "formal" complaints being raised.

Allan said she was proud of her team. "We're the kind of office that we run hard when we've got the ball".

Patterson said trouble brewing at home was déjà vu for Hipkins and the story should be kept in perspective.

It happened more than a year ago, there had been no formal complaints and that particular problem appeared to have been resolved.

"But if it is only one example of a broader pattern of behaviour - that is a problem for her and Hipkins," Patterson said.

"The prime minister will well remember initially giving Stuart Nash and then Michael Wood the benefit of the doubt, but the ensuing weeks would become rolling mauls of disaster for all involved, ending two cabinet careers and inflicting serious political damage on the government."

On Friday there were indications another rolling maul of disaster might be unfolding.

"Kiri Allan 'yelled and screamed' at me, senior public servant says" was the headline on a Stuff report.

It said the senior public servant had decades of experience.

"The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they witnessed Allan's interactions with younger staff members both from government agencies and her Beehive office in a meeting, as well as seeing her 'absolutely berate' another official for 20 minutes another occasion."

Allan strongly refuted the allegations, the report said.

There's a lot more to it, including NEMA's chief executive David Gawn saying in a statement he had been aware of concerns in the minister's office.

Christopher Luxon in Timaru

National Party leader Christopher Luxon Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

In parliament this week Acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni was in Hipkins' seat facing questions from the opposition.

Luxon had decided on a strategy, and asked a series of detailed questions about the economy.

Sepuloni is not an economic minister, she holds lead portfolios of economic development, workplace relations, arts and culture.

Among his questions:

  • Has New Zealand's economy grown faster or slower than Australia's in the last two quarters?
  • Are any of Australia, the United States, China, Canada, Japan or any other comparable country in the Asia Pacific region in recession or is it just New Zealand?
  • Can she actually name a country other than New Zealand with a current account deficit, a large fiscal deficit, high inflation, high interest rates and a recession?
  • What is the current account deficit and why does it matter so much to the credit agencies?

The Herald's Audrey Young watched this happening and did not think it was fair.

"Her stock answer was New Zealand could always improve but it's doing better than most in some measures," Young wrote.

"And as she fudged and hedged and deflected in the way most nimble politicians would do, most of Luxon's caucus howled in derision at her apparent ignorance."

It was an attempt to humiliate Sepuloni, Young said.

"He (Luxon) did not want a good answer, He did not want to debate policy. He wanted to rattle Sepuloni and ask questions he hoped would show her up.

"He looked smug and she looked annoyed at herself. One of them failed, and it wasn't her."

Young said that among the hubris shown by National MPs not a thought was given about the recent display of Luxon's own ignorance at National's recent conference.

"After his speech unveiling a new law and order policy that would almost certainly increase the prison muster, Luxon could not answer a journalist's simple question: how much does it cost to house a prisoner?"

Young said her point was not that Luxon did not grasp the detail. It was that, like Sepuloni, he should not have been expected to know it.

"Throwing quiz questions has become a cheap substitute for political debate, employed by journalists and politicians alike."

When it was reported that there was another RNZAF plane ghosting the one carrying Hipkins and his trade delegation to China, in case it broke down, there was the inevitable flurry of excitement in parliament.

The Prime Minister's trip to India has been delayed due to technical issues with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757.

One of the RNZAF's Boeing 757s Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Hipkins office quickly shot down a report that both planes were in China, saying the reserve was in Manila in case it was needed and would be re-positioned in Darwin for the return trip.

"Using RNZAF aircraft is far cheaper than a commercial charter and has other benefits, such as security, and the ability to travel point to point to reduce time away from home and additional costs such as hotels, which would be required if there were stopovers," the spokesperson said.

Sepuloni was peppered with questions at her post-cabinet press conference, and was even asked "are the lives of the prime minister and others at risk?"

All she could say was that the 757s were due to be replaced in 2028-2030, they did not break down on every trip, and it was not Labour's fault the previous government "barely invested anything" in the Air Force.

Luxon found a way to criticise the government, using the double emissions argument.

"We have a climate change challenge, I thought, in this country, so sending an empty 30-year-old 757 following a full one doesn't seem a good move," he said

"Clearly, it's a sign that the Air Force is concerned about the reliability of the first plane."

The next day Luxon had decided he would not use Air Force planes if he became prime minister, and Hipkins and his delegation should have flown commercial, RNZ reported.

He managed to link this with the government being responsible for the recession.

"We are in a recession that this government created and it would be inappropriate for us to actually commit and spend new money on planes in a recession, and therefore my personal view is we travel commercial," he said.

"There's a whole bunch of options, commercial travel, charter travel."

Luxon argued it would have been cheaper for the Hipkins delegation - about 80 people - to use commercial or charter flights.

He supported that by saying almost $100 million had been spent on maintaining the 757s, although they are used for other duties such as transporting troops and supplies, training pilots, and should be flown regularly as part of maintenance.

Sepuloni said it would be a big change because leaders had been using the planes since the 1990s.

"Mind you, you'd have to be a leader to make the choice. He may not get that opportunity."

*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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