MAX HAYTON. New Zealand’s new government sets fast pace

Nov 20, 2017

A contention that New Zealand has “lapped” Australia is worth examining in the light of recent developments.  The vote to support sex marriage means Australia has increased its pace, but has it caught up?

Comparisons are said to be odious but prominent commentators have been holding the new government in New Zealand up to the light and comparing it with its Australian counterpart.

One of them is Peter FitzSimons who says that for years Australia was far ahead of provincial New Zealanders but over time New Zealand took the lead in many “matters of progress” and now New Zealand has lapped Australia.

That may have changed in at least one respect in the past week.  With the comprehensive endorsement of same sex marriage Australia is catching up.

On this issue New Zealand has been ahead since April 2013 when a free vote in Parliament approved same sex marriage by 77 votes to 44, the fifteenth country in the world to do so.

New Zealanders might now have to recalibrate their attitude to their ANZAC cousins.  The image of hard men of the outback doesn’t fit so well when by 61.6 percent to 38.4 percent Australians voted for a kinder, more caring and tolerant society.

FitzSimons names a number of other measures by which it appears to him New Zealanders are lapping Australia.

One of them is New Zealand’s tendency to produce women Prime Ministers.  After Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark we now present to the world Jacinda Ardern.

The New Zealand Prime Minister and her Labour led coalition has had the helm for only a month and in that time her government has taken several initiatives in the direction of Progressive Politics.

She had already declared that discussion about a Republic should have been held when New Zealand considered changing its flag.  The proposal failed, but Ardern says it is now time for that debate about a republic. In the meantime, reference to Jesus and The Queen have been removed from Parliament’s daily opening prayer out of respect for republicans and non-Christians.

Another early initiative that puts New Zealand ahead of its neighbour is to increase Paid Parental Leave from 18 weeks (the same as in Australia) to 20 weeks by July next year and 26 weeks by July 2020.

Ardern has also shown a fresh approach in Foreign Policy and has been compared more than favourably with her Australian counterpart.

With a revised version of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the CPTPP (Comprehensive Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership) she says that as well as free trade there is now a chance to globalise workers’ and consumers’ rights as well.

In particular the obnoxious Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions were toned down in manoeuvres by Ardern’s team and by the Canadian new boy Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The ISDS provisions of TPP would have given large companies the right to sue governments they considered inhibited their profit seeking activities. This would have been a major curtailment of governments’ rights to protect the interests of their own citizens.  It would have allowed corporations to target employment, environmental and health and safety laws that might have limited their activities.

Details haven’t yet been revealed but reports suggest Ardern and Trudeau’s efforts against the ISDS have helped to protect the sovereignty of Parliaments from litigation by international corporations.

This led Crickey Political Editor Bernard Keane to say that Turnbull and the overpaid bureaucrats of DFAT had undermined Australia’s interests but “thankfully, there are other leaders who are doing more to stand up for the interests of Australia than they are.”

Ardern gained general approval for her performance at the APEC and East Asia Summits.  She was assisted by the leader of the coalition partner party New Zealand First, Foreign Minister Winston Peters. Under New Zealand’s MMP system it was he who held the balance of power and put Ardern and Labour into government.

Of more concern to Australians and their government is the Ardern team’s attitude to criticising their Australian counterparts.

She has broken with tradition and broadened the areas in which New Zealand governments tackle their Australian mates on contentious subjects.  She no longer limits criticism to matters that directly affect New Zealanders.  She boldly declared that Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is unacceptable.

New Zealand has for some time offered to take 150 refugees from Australia’s off-shore detention centres, an offer not yet taken up.

She said “I see the human face of this and I see the need and the role New Zealand needs to play. I think it’s clear that we don’t see what’s happening there as acceptable, that’s why the offer’s there.”

She said it doesn’t imply a soft approach to people smugglers who must be stopped.

“Anyone who tries to put at risk vulnerable people’s lives should come under the full force of the law. It is unacceptable to have people manipulate those in vulnerable situations by acting as smugglers and organising shipments of people.

“They must be stopped. New Zealand has played a role in trying to stop them.”

Ardern wanted substantive talks with Turnbull to discuss the New Zealand offer, but had to make do with an informal conversation on the side-lines of the East Asia Summit in Manila.

She denied she had been snubbed by Turnbull over the proposal for substantive talks.  She had to make do with a chat over tea.  She said “you’d be surprised what I can achieve over a cup of tea.”

Officials are continuing the talks on the New Zealand offer while Australia is giving priority to a deal with the United States.

But the pressure continues.  During Parliamentary Questions on Thursday Foreign Minister Winston Peters (formerly a Minister for Horse Racing) weighed in with the comment that since 2013 when the offer was made, “we are waiting to see whether or not someone will put a saddle on that gift horse or go on looking it in the mouth.”

If New Zealand is making progress in these diverse ways, there may be another initiative with far greater international significance.

Foreign Minister Peters who visited North Korea in 2007 in a failed attempt to end that country’s nuclear programme.  While in Manila last week he was invited to a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

There has been no announcement about what Tillerson is planning, but political correspondents in Wellington believe Peters may be asked to use his experience to act as a special envoy to Pyongyang.

Winston may get an opportunity to pull off a diplomatic break-through with Kim Jong-un. That would deserve a victory lap but there’s no confirmation of any of this yet.

If New Zealand has been lapping anyone, the country got an early start.

In 1893 New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.  In 1899 New Zealand was the first country in the world to establish an eight hour working day.  For some decades early last century New Zealand considered itself a laboratory for social innovation.

Populist PM Sir Robert Muldoon and neo-liberal finance minister Sir Roger Douglas pushed “pause” on those aspirations from about 1975 onwards.  Any lapping was the sound of the well-heeled at their public and private troughs.

Jacinda Ardern and her Labour led coalition have brought new hope to those who once again want to set the pace of progressive politics.

Max Hayton is a New Zealand journalist with parliamentary and international experience. 


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