The Prime Minister’s habit of announcing policy off the cuff has seen some New Zealand diplomats start some not-entirely-diplomatic whispers.
The scuttlebutt inside both MFAT and DOC has been that John Key has now doubly-humiliated his officials with his muddled proposal to restart commercial whaling.
To recap: In January the Prime Minister was looking forward to a visit from the US Secretary of State. He blithely announced a grand new initiative to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean – the details of which he’d fully reveal only once the Secretary was on the ground and our Press Gallery were paying maximum attention.
Concerned that the PM was demonstrating no real understanding of the polarised politics of whaling, officials rushed to ask Key what his proposal was. After a bit of too-ing and fro-ing the policy, apparently, Mr Key struck on was legalising limited commercial whaling. Essentially killing the endangered whales as a sop to the Japanese whaling industry might paradoxically save the whales.
Lo and behold our representative to the International Whaling Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was dispatched to Florida to make Key’s vision a reality. I can only imagine how Sir Geoffrey must have felt; a long-time champion of whale conservation, respected Chair of the IWC, and former Labour Prime Minister to boot, he now had the unenviable task of selling a pro-whaling message on behalf of Key’s National Government!
I found out about the inside story almost immediately. Our diplomats knew they were breaking basic principles of diplomacy (and they knew their negotiating partners knew it too); the NZ side was conceding to the vested commercial interests of Japan’s whaling industry without any concrete promise of reciprocal concessions whatsoever. The many Conservation NGO organisations with branches in New Zealand phoned me from Florida as the farce was unfolding.
Well surprise, surprise, what Mr Key soon discovered was that he’d backed himself into a corner. Our traditional anti-whaling allies including Australia and the UK were completely horrified by NZ’s joining up to the pro-whaling camp.
Knowing New Zealanders would expect Labour to stand up for endangered marine mammal species I launched a petition opposing the resumption of commercial whaling here in NZ. Subsequently Foreign Minister Murray McCully tried to quieten me up by telling our Parliament that the Key Government’s whaling policy hadn’t changed at all from Labour’s. Naturally Mr McCully’s startling claim raised eyebrows at our (former) allies at the IWC and the words “please explain” were put to NZ’s diplomats by Australia and the UK. And what could our diplomats say?
Now, over the past two weeks the wheels of the Government’s political management on Conservation issues have inevitably fallen off. Thousands of people have signed my online petition opposing the resumption of commercial whaling, and NGOs including Greenpeace, WSPA and Forest & Bird have come together to launch their own paper petition. The public have learned that National want to mine our national parks and that, far from being a new policy, there were all sorts of meetings between National people and the mining industry before the election.
Consequently, in the face of overwhelming domestic and foreign opposition, Mr Key has sought to neutralise the whaling issue. Sources inside DOC and MFAT report that resistance from traditional anti-whaling allied countries at the International Whaling Commission have led to a policy document being sent to Cabinet recommending that unless NZ can find a little bit of support among anti-whaling traditional allies, Key’s proposal to allow commercial whaling will be dropped quietly. I challenge Mr Key to release that Cabinet document, and let the public decide which of his Government’s statements on whaling had any truth to them.
So now our hard-working diplomats are charged with the unhappy task of trying to explain another diplomatic u-turn by our Government. Utterly humiliating for our diplomats, but ultimately most humiliating for Mr Key, and damaging to New Zealand’s international reputation.