Doing it their way

New Zealand's surprising stance on Palestine rattles a few cages
Published : 10 January 2017

By: Duncan Graham

At the UN Security Council’s December meeting New Zealand showed the world it’s no megapower’s poodle.

The South Pacific nation co-sponsored a successful motion demanding a halt to settlements in Palestine territory, delighting much of the Islamic world and infuriating Israel.

Egypt drafted the motion, also sponsored by Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela. The US, which normally supports Israel, abstained from voting.

The win is more bark than bite as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said no-way and pulled home his Wellington ambassador. But it shows how a resolute and tiny Western country can write its own script and play on the big stage.

New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully told reporters the motion was “a victory for those who are keen to see the Security Council take some action on the Middle East peace process after eight years of complete inaction.”

McCully won’t be in airport VIP lounges after May as it’s all change in Kiwi politics following Prime Minister John Key’s surprise pre-Christmas decision to quit. The top job passed almost seamlessly to his former deputy Bill English.

McCully has been ill and his exit after eight years was expected. Front-runners for the position include Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, 51, and Trade Minister Todd McClay, 48, former Ambassador to the European Union. 

McClay’s background makes him the logical choice. Coleman was formerly Defense Minister so also has international experience.

Kiwis will vote sometime before November; if the electorate rejects a Keyless National Party, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman David Parker, 56, could collect the portfolio. Policy shift would be minimal as both parties agree on major issues.

Key’s departure while leagues ahead in the polls, the economy bubbling and budget in surplus should be Politics 101 for leaders everywhere: how to play the dark arts without turning embittered and becoming despised. Few will copy because most practitioners start believing their own publicity and succumb to hubris.

Had Soeharto resigned as president when popular and development was booming, Indonesia would now be dramatically different.

Key was a high-altitude money trader working across world capitals when he returned home to revive the National Party, becoming PM in 2008. Now he’s done it his way again – striding out of office even though the seers said he’d win the next election.

This suggests Kiwis do politics like civilized gentlefolk. Wrong. Most of Key’s 37 predecessors were knifed at the ballot box, metaphorically stabbed by colleagues in factional brawls or literally dying at their desks. He was labeled “the smiling assassin” for dispatching slouchers without making them rivals.

Key, 55, rationalized that a fourth three-year term in office (New Zealand has no restrictions on leadership tenure) would damage his family and he needed to “make room for new talent”. Though usually a euphemism for “I’ve lost control of Cabinet”,  seasoned commentators reckon the reasons are genuine.

Key broke all rules governing conservative parties, calling himself a “centrist and pragmatist” driven by “common sense” rather than ego or ideology. He voted for gay marriage, still unavailable in Australia, and ignored overseas trends to lift the pension age though costs are crippling budgets as retirees live longer.

Despite his ease in high places Key remained the happy guy next-door, hard to hate. Even his Labour opponents said he “served generously with dedication.” He stayed ordinary while being extraordinary, a quality seemingly shared by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo.

Although representing only 4.5 million people, Key’s goodbye was world news. His big mates in Washington, London and Brussels called to wish him well. At his holiday hideaway in Hawaii he plays golf with Barack Obama. Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull reacted with Oz slang: “Say it ain’t so, Bro.” So it’s all the more surprising that New Zealand backs Palestine.

McCully, 63, a lawyer before entering parliament, worked backstage. Under his watch, New Zealand’s strange relationship with the US improved when the USS Sampson became the first warship flying the stars and stripes to sail into Kiwi waters in 33 years.

New Zealand was a founder member of the Australia, New Zealand, United States (Anzus) security treaty, but in 1986, under a Labour Government, went nuclear free, banning visits by nuclear armed or powered vessels.

The snub astonished Australia and outraged America, but the acronym stayed intact; defense officials quietly kept the three-way alliance afloat while their political masters stared at the horizon.

The National Party favors business and farmers, a powerful force in local politics. Aotearoa, New Zealand’s Maori name, has been an international human rights and social welfare pioneer and a model for others. 

It was the first nation in the world to give women the vote. It developed a massive government housing program, pensions for all at 65, free public health and education, and  no-fault accident insurance  – policies dear to the electorate.

To pay for the goodies, it has a high tax economy dependent on tourism and food exports. Its farmer cooperative Fonterra has a milk packing plant in Cikarang, West Java.

Key and McCully last visited Indonesia in July. New Zealand doesn’t carry the Islamophobic baggage that weighs down Australia’s relations with its northern neighbor, so has a benign image in the archipelago embellished by backing Palestine.  However it’s a ferocious free trader against Indonesia’s protectionism.

Also in December, the World Trade Organization upheld a New Zealand/US challenge to 18 agricultural non-tariff barriers allegedly costing Kiwi exporters more than half a billion dollars. Indonesia will appeal.

Another potential clash zone has been flagged by incoming ambassador Tantowi Yahya, who plans to give Kiwis “accurate and up-to-date information” about his country’s policies in West Papua.

Vocal NGOs highlighting alleged human rights abuses in the province are unlikely to stay tuned into the former TV host’s message.

McCully set up consulates in Surabaya and Bali to boost business and sell high-quality education. Aid has been channeled to develop geothermal power projects where Kiwi engineers are experts.

Whoever becomes New Zealand’s next Foreign Affairs Minister, the little nation at the bottom of the world will continue to do things its way.

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