Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Winston: Not The Worst Choice

I had an inkling early last week that Phil Goff was about to take up Trade and Trade Negotiations, and Sutton was out. It wasn’t really rocket science on my part; somebody from his office called me to assist in organizing a few people along to lunch in Auckland, to talk about trade issues with him.

Over the last six years, as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Goff has focused almost exclusively on international political issues. He has left trade negotiations, and much of trade policy, to Jim Sutton. In international trade terms, Goff is a green-horn.

Both Foreign Affairs, and Trade, are plum and prestigious roles in the Cabinet. Goff was handed Foreign Affairs in 1999, in a key move by Helen Clark to keep him directed on international affairs, and keep him away from home for six months of the year. Trade carries a similarly high status, and the travel schedule is just as demanding. The trade policy and trade negotiations work is more detailed, and more technical, and requires an absolute command of the brief. By contrast, the foreign policy role is more ceremonial and diplomatic in nature.

Assuming that no minister can hold down both the trade negotiations and foreign policy roles, Goff, by taking on Trade Negotiations, had to be relinquishing Foreign Affairs. Which meant, of course, that Clark needed to make room in a prime, prestigious portfolio either for one of her own Cabinet she needed to keep distant, or for a complete outsider.

The reality is, however, that none of the other Labour ministers were worthy enough to post to Foreign Affairs. That’s to say, their performance, generally, had been so lackluster that nobody posed a threat to Helen Clark’s leadership. Maharey, Mallard, and Cullen would have loved to have had a go at it, but they were each partially culpable for an appalling Labour Party campaign. Hodgson is too loyal to Clark to need to be kept distant.

So who would the outsider be? Dunne or Winston?

That thinking is pretty easily dispensed with. Dunne in a cooperative government is not a threat. He will do any role, as long as he gets the influence of a ministerial warrant. Yes, he would have loved Foreign Affairs, but with just three seats at the table, he wasn’t going to get it.

So was it Winston’s for the taking?

Clark might have thought so. She knows Winston’s vanity. He enjoys the pomp and ceremony of public office, without having to work too hard for it. Contrary to what Don Brash has said, Winston is actually really pretty comfortable talking to foreign dignitaries. He is urbane and cultured, and capable of maintaining a sense of decorum in front of them.

Clark will also have observed how, as Treasurer for two years, that until the end, Winston stuck absolutely to the brief. He did not have legendary scraps or disagreements with officials and policy advisers; he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to counter lucid, well-thought-out arguments, and a seventh floor beehive office is no place to win a public debate. By restricting Winston to Foreign Affairs—completely without trade—and allowing him a constant flow of eminent ambassadors and high commissioners to his office, and cocktails on the Wellington diplomatic circuit, and the frequent flyer miles he will rack up as a roving foreign minister without any policy influence—Winston will have his ego constantly massaged.

So of course he was going to take it.

Media attention to international reaction of Winston’s appointment has been skewed, and tend to miss the point more than slightly. Winston is a great fan of the Singaporean economic miracle, and took considerable interest in it while he was Treasurer. He doesn’t understand Japan, or China, or Indonesia, or Malaysia, or Thailand, but his understanding is no less than that of other Ministers. And our interests with those countries are principally economic, where Phil Goff will reign as Trade Minister. In person, Winston is courteous and polite. He doesn’t go about farting at the top table.

Clark knows that Winston wants to redeem his own reputation that still reeks of subversion, from his last time in government. He is now 60. He has only a few more years remaining in public life. The Foreign Minister’s post is his swansong.

The final point, of course, is that Clark herself has taken a lead in foreign policy to an extent that is far greater than any other PM since David Lange in his first term. She will continue to play that role with Winston holding the Ministerial post.

But it will be fun to watch. New Zealand’s diplomats will learn quickly not to schedule morning meetings when their Minister is in town. They will have to get used to the Minister taking off in the Ambassadorial car and driver to explore non-programmed sights. As long as he refrains from doing so in places such as China, where the state apparatus is well equipped to accommodate the peculiar whims of visiting VIPs, and then using the knowledge of indiscretions to their political advantage, then there should be no problem with Winston off overseas.

Besides: New Zealand’s foreign policy officers are well used to dealing with politically-appointed embarrassments. Having suffered the likes of Jonathan Hunt, John Collinge, Graeme Kelly, and Warren Cooper in international diplomacy, Winston should be no further burden.


Cathy Odgers said...

I agree.

Despite not deserving the post, politically Winnie is a decent choice and I can imagine will take to the position with much gusto.

Funnily enough I think he will be extremely well received in Asia.

Asian men are traditionally chauvenistic, smoke, stay up late, gamble, root and are discreet about it.

Winston will fit right in, especially with his post as Racing Minister. Asians love the horses.

And Winnie, while Maori, has a latin kind of look, not charcoal black. Hence Asians will temper their unease of anyone with skin darker than themselves.

Insolent Prick said...

Yes indeed. Winston is very engaging. And he has the distinct advantage of being able to talk to South-East Asians, who are potentially the most offended, without appearing like he's a snotty-nosed, white liberal Colonial.

And Winston is a pragmatist. He's hardly going to fly straight to Beijing and harangue them about Tibet.

Craig Ranapia said...


I admire people who see the glass half-full rather than half-empty (especially when they're buying another round) but his little tanty at the swearing-in ceremony today was less than encouraging.

Oh, and there was the spectacle of Winston asserting that, "I was aware of . . . a German foreign minister who did that for 18 years outside of Cabinet and outside of any government, and if you can do it for the biggest economy in Europe, I thought maybe an economy like ours could see some advantages in it."

Well, Winston, the problem with your role model is that he doesn't exist. Hans-Dietrich Genscher spent 18 years as German Foreign Minister; but throughout that period his Free Democratic Party was in formal coalition with first the center-left SDP, then the center-right CDU/SDU. He was also VICE-CHANCELLOR, a position one would reasonably assume couldn't be held by someone "outside of any government" unless Winston has unilaterally re-written history and the German Constitution.

So, we've got a Foreign Minister who is either remarkably ill-informed or a flat out liar about the basic political and constitutional norms of Europe's largest economy. And he's displaying an inability to handle tough questions from the media. Golly, wonder if the foreign press aren't going to love that.

What the hell, Cathy might have a point. As long as MFAT can keep Peters well-lubricated and confined to the nearest titty bar, how much harm could he do?