NZ Foreign Minister’s anti-China defamation of Carr threatens trans-Tasman friendship

May 9, 2024
Washington, USA. 11th Apr, 2024. US Department of State Secretary Antony Blinken hold a meeting with New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, today on April 11, 2024 at State Department headquarters in Washington DC, USA. Imahe: Alamy/Lenin Nolly/Sipa USA/Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr sues New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters for defamation over AUKUS comments. The defamation action comes as a chagrined Peters took what looked like a step back from AUKUS in recent speeches.

The undiplomatic discord between Australia’s former Foreign Minister Bob Carr and New Zealand’s current Foreign Minister Winston Peters tarnishes the trans-Tasman friendship. It could be dismissed as a minor act of political theatre except for the standing and seniority of the players involved.

Winston Peters is the leader of the New Zealand First party which in last year’s General Election won only 6 percent of the vote, yet as part of the governing coalition he is Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of New Zealand.

The reason for this apparent anomaly is New Zealand’s MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) voting system that means supporting a minor party can be far from futile. A small party can wield considerable influence.

Another minor party, the right wing ACT party won just 8.6 percent of the votes yet it is also in coalition with the National Party and its leader David Seymour will be deputy Prime Minister for the second half of the 3-year parliamentary term.

Both Peters and Seymour have shown strong tendencies to speak and act independently of the Prime Minister yet despite Luxon’s business background he has shown little ability to rein them in.

Some less sympathetic commentators say the coalition is a three headed Taniwha (a mythical Maori monster).

Peters has form as a capricious politician. In 1991 as a National MP and Maori Affairs Minister he was dismissed from his post after criticising his own government’s economic and foreign ownership policies.

After creating the populist New Zealand First party he has shown willingness to work on both sides of the House, at different times serving in coalitions with both National and Labour governments.

He has brought his mercurial attitude to his role in the current National led coalition, an example of which is his undiplomatic outburst against Bob Carr, a former Australian Foreign Minister who for ten years was the Premier of New South Wales.

In April Carr visited Wellington to speak to a Labour Party organised seminar on the AUKUS military alliance, which requires Australia to acquire expensive Virginia class nuclear powered submarines.

Carr took part in the seminar with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Enele Sopoaga, the former leader of Tuvalu and member of the Pacific Elders Voice who are opposed to the pact.

The debate in New Zealand involves a proposed “Pillar Two” of AUKUS that would allow nuclear free New Zealand to engage with AUKUS in the fields of high tech war-fighting technology and intelligence.

The seminar which Carr attended opposes AUKUS on the grounds that it would impinge on New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, stop it from being able to disagree with the US and distract from climate change mitigation which Pacific leaders hold to be the most pressing security issue in the region.

AUKUS confronts China, a country with which New Zealand enjoys a healthy relationship. New Zealand has reserved the right to criticise China on human rights and other issues while enjoying a profitable trading relationship.

Carr told the Wellington gathering Peters was trying to “sell New Zealanders a reversal of their non-nuclear principles“. He said Pillar Two of the pact is “fragrant methane-wrapped bullshit” and he was pleased to see New Zealand’s independent foreign policy was not as “gullible to the Americans” as Australia’s foreign policy.

Carr said the price to be paid for the submarines was the “biggest transfer of wealth” outside of Australia in the country’s history. Australia needs to find (before likely over-runs) about 368 billion AUD.

Winston Peters in a Radio New Zealand interview alleged that Carr has inappropriate links to China. Carr says Peters’ words were indefensibly defamatory and have no basis in fact.

In view of the strong libel laws in New Zealand most news organisations have removed references to Peters’ precise words.

The Leader of the Opposition Labour Party Chris Hipkins said “The allegations that he made against Bob Carr, a senior and well-respected politician, are totally unacceptable.”

Hipkins called on the Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to stand Peters down. He said “The fact you have Bob Carr taking defamation action is embarrassing for New Zealand.” He said Winston Peters has abused his office and is now a problem for the Prime Minister.

“Winston Peters cannot execute his duties as foreign affairs minister while he has this hanging over him.”

Christopher Luxon said Carr, an experienced politician, should understand the “rough and tumble of politics” and Peters was doing an “exceptionally good job” as foreign minister. He said the comments posed no diplomatic risk.

Luxon said he would not make the comments Peters made, and had not spoken to him about them.

The unpredictable Winston Peters then took what looked like a step back from AUKUS. He said in a speech in Wellington that New Zealand had an “innately complex” relationship with China and New Zealand was “a long way” from signing on as an associate to the AUKUS alliance.

Weighing up whether New Zealand should join the pact would “take time”, Peters said, and New Zealand had not yet been invited to join. Peters said it also wasn’t clear what the criteria for joining Pillar Two would be.

Hipkins told reporters he was pleased with the “overall thrust” of Peters’ speech. “I welcome him stepping back a little bit from his previous ‘rush-headlong-into-signing-up-for-AUKUS’,” Hipkins said. “That is a good thing.”

While Peters appears to be moderating his language over AUKUS there is no sign yet that he might modify his comments about Bob Carr.

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