Richard Prebble: Politicians aren’t asking the big questions on China


Last week the new Parliament was able to ask the Government 36 oral questions and numerous supplementary questions. The Government was scrutinised on vital matters such as: “What recent announcements has she made about the Milford Track?”

And last month, our biggest trading partner, China, cautioned New Zealand that we may have our eyes “plucked out”. The threat did not produce a single parliamentary question. China’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine did not spark any MP to ask: “are we next?”

The Prime Minister announced that New Zealand had made a formal protest to China over the use of a doctored photo by a Chinese foreign affairs officer. When questioned about our protest, a Chinese foreign affairs spokesman expressed surprise. The official did not know New Zealand had protested. No MP asked “is our protest still in the post?”

MPs know this is one the biggest foreign policy challenges the country has ever faced. Our strongest allies, Australia and the US, and our biggest trading partner, China, are asking us to make choices we do not want to make.

If our MPs will not ask questions, New Zealand may make some very bad choices.

Question number one: “What was our new Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, thinking when she issued a joint declaration with our Five Eyes partners the US, UK, Canada and Australia, condemning human rights in Hong Kong?” Five Eyes is the world’s biggest intelligence surveillance organisation. Wikipedia states that when Hong Kong was a British colony, it was a major centre of operations.

Five Eyes surveillance is not popular with those spied on. A statement coming from a spying alliance was bound to provoke a furious reaction.

Supplementary question: “If we have, as the PM claims, an independent foreign policy, why not put out our own statement condemning the expulsion of Hong Kong MPs?”

Question number two: “When did the Five Eyes intelligence alliance morph into a foreign policy alliance?” There has been no consultation with Parliament over this changed role. Did Cabinet approve? If so, what is the role of Five Eyes today? When did we put the spies in charge of policy?

Question number three: “It was the Trump administration that started the tariff war with China. Did we express concern?”

Question number four: “The US has weaponised the greenback. Every bank in the world needs access to the SWIFT international bank transfer system. No bank dare accept as a customer an individual or organisation on America’s banned list. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief civil servant, cannot even bank her salary. If America had denied David Lange the ability to bank his salary over our nuclear policy, we would have been outraged.

“Did New Zealand express concern over the Trump administration’s denial of banking to citizens of our biggest trading partner?”

Question number five: “The Prime Minister has indicated there is no need for concern because we have a ‘mature relationship’ with China. Australia thought they had a mature relationship with China. Australia’s minerals have helped power China’s remarkable economic growth. It has not stopped China putting crippling tariffs on Australian wine. So what is to stop tariffs on New Zealand wine?”

Question number six: “Is the intelligence we receive from the Five Eyes alliance worth more than our wine industry? What about our milk powder trade?” Officials like to say we receive 10 times more intelligence from our Five Eyes partners than we supply. I was a member of the parliamentary oversight intelligence committee and I am still bound by secrecy. I can reveal the biggest secret: I never learned anything I had not already read in the Economist magazine.

Our membership comes more from officials’ desire to be in the know, to be part of the in crowd, than from any advantage to New Zealand.

We should not romanticise our position in the world. We are a Western country. We are in no position to mediate.

The British ruled Hong Kong with no democracy for nearly 100 years. New Zealand never complained once. The West imposed unequal treaties on China. New Zealand never complained.

We admire the courage of the Hong Kong students, have respect for the Dalai Lama and are alarmed that there may be as many as a million Muslim Uighurs in detention camps. New Zealand should make our concerns known to China while declining to be a casualty in a trade war with that country.

We are the beneficiaries of Pax Americana. The Seventh Fleet dominates the Pacific and long may it continue to do so. But the mighty Seventh Fleet cannot protect New Zealand from being a casualty in a trade war.

Our Five Eyes partners need to reduce New Zealand’s and Australia’s dependence on China by both the USA and the UK joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

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