STUFF – Simon Draper05:00, Jan 18 2021
OPINION: At long last, the end of the (lunar) Year of the Rat is approaching and the Year of the Ox will soon begin.
However, with a month or so to go, the Rat doesn’t look like it’s planning to go quietly.
Like many New Zealanders, I spent the holiday period with family, reflecting on the past year.
As I socialised with friends and family, ate at cafes and walked mask-less down busy streets, the policy wonk in me couldn’t help but think how many New Zealanders seemed to think our current level of freedom was due to luck.
In fact, it is in large part due to a number of well-functioning, mainly public sector, institutions – like Health, Treasury, MBIE and our defence forces, to name a few.
It seems to me these public institutions, which often fly under the radar unless some disgruntled taxpayer is complaining, are like your knees. That is, you only really value them when they cease to work.
Of course, there are improvements we can make, there always are, but the combination of clear political communication and well-executed operations don’t happen by accident.
It is worth pausing for a moment and thinking how we make sure our public institutions can continue to do their job in a way that allows New Zealanders to do theirs.
For me, the value of our institutions was brought into sharp relief as I watched the US Capitol being breached for the first time since 1814.
As a non-American but a strong believer in the ideals embodied in the US constitution, if not always exhibited by society itself, I felt hugely invested in the outcome and relieved there was a system and institutions in place to deal with the political disruption.
It got me wondering, as it often does, about New Zealand. Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, has noted that trends in governance can easily spread.
The US experience is not irrelevant to New Zealand.
Transfers of power in New Zealand are almost exclusively based on unwritten and imprecise conventions.
Indeed, the ‘caretaker convention’ largely invented by Sir Jim McClay in the dying days of the Muldoon era was just that – invented on the spot.
I am certainly not arguing we need to change the system that has worked so well for us, but just like any important ‘system’ we need to ensure it adapts and responds to the times.
Whatever you may think of President Trump, he has tested the US system to an extent that was previously unimaginable and has shocked many.
It would be naive for New Zealanders to think our systems for transfer of power won’t ever be tested or contested.
So, it’s important to continue to ensure these systems – and the institutions that support them – are robust, before they too are tested.
One outcome of the events on Capitol Hill will be that for the next few years the attention of the Biden Administration will be domestic.
A key focus will be trying to reduce and heal the domestic polarisation so evident of late. This means the US has limited capacity and political will to engage internationally, making it even more important that New Zealand is very clear in what its ‘asks’ of a new US administration will be.
In the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s discussions with Asian partners, it is clear they have a growing list of asks of the US – everything from removing the trade tariffs imposed on China since 2018 to not overreacting to likely provocations from North Korea.
It would be interesting to know about New Zealand’s asks of the US. My guess is they will be around unblocking the Disputes Settlement Body at the WTO; getting back into the Paris Climate Accord (not really an ask because Biden has promised it); and generally reinvesting in multilateralism.
All of this fits into reinvesting in the ‘rules-based order’ paradigm, which has been central to New Zealand’s international relevance, and the fraying of which has made New Zealand diplomats very nervous.
A return to (CP)TPP? Possible, but deeply unpopular with the people the Democrats will need to keep happy for the midterms in two short years’ time.
Is New Zealand suspended from the ANZUS alliance forever, or is now the time to relook at that? That would be brave, and hard to imagine New Zealand contemplating.
What we do know is that with a return of many US officials from the Obama era, we can expect the new Biden administration to have some asks of New Zealand.
As the administration rebuilds coalitions to reassert US presence and prestige in the Asia Pacific, one can imagine that officials like the newly appointed “Indo-Pacific coordinator” and Obama era veteran Kurt Campbell and others will be wanting New Zealand to contribute.
The US will be looking for friends. So then, let us hope the final weeks of the Year of the Rat pass without too much more drama – and let’s hope the Year of the Ox resembles its namesake – dependable, strong and unremarkable.
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono