OPINION: An hour before Jacinda Ardern dodged questions at her post-cabinet press conference about how she’d 'schemozzled' parts of her US trip and jeopardised her all-important meeting with President Joe Biden, her former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters was delivering a speech to the Otago Foreign Policy class.
It was a mixed bag emphasising the importance of diplomacy, talking up his Pacific reset, the increasing threat of China in the Pacific and the folly of the ‘bro-reaucracy’ - appointing politicians to posts which should be reserved for diplomats. Yes, Trevor Mallard, it was a pointed dig at you, and to be honest, probably you too Ron Mark.
One thing it did clearly highlight - especially as a kind of pseudo-curtain-raiser to Ardern’s big foreign policy announcement at her press conference about sending more troops to train Ukrainians - what it really highlighted was how much better equipped the last government was to deal with matters of international relations thanks to Winston Peters.
Ardern stood at the podium, no sign of her Foreign Minister and basically forced her Defence Minister Peeni Henare to say a few words. She shouldn’t have bothered, he said nothing of any consequence whatsoever.
Then she refused to engage on the ramifications of potentially missing out on a Presidential meeting while in the United States because she opted to isolate with her partner when he had COVID.
Then she downplayed the fact she’d derailed the first leg of her trip to Los Angeles. The entire press pack and delegation is there waiting while she tries to get the COVID out of her system.
Ardern has been Prime Minister for nearly five years. She’s not been to the White House once. When Sir John Key was Prime Minister he visited the Oval Office in 2011 and 2014. Add to that all the golf and summiting with the then-President Barack Obama - and ties between our two countries were tight.
Yes, COVID got in the way and Ardern wasn’t exactly gagging for a meeting with the former administration under Donald Trump but these meetings are critically important.
Especially at a time when China has a growing foothold in our region. Australia is taking a far more hardline approach in its condemnation of China while simultaneously strengthening ties with the US.
In fact, Sir John Key has recently been musing that our relationship with the US has drifted and that America is relying more on Australia.
This brings me back to my original point. Winston Peters.
There’s a lot I don’t miss about Peters in politics but yesterday was a reminder about some of the good and the mana that he brought to the gig.
He was the last Foreign Minister to visit the Solomon Islands for example - that was back in 2019. Australia’s sent ministerial representation there since the chilling news broke of the deal between the Solomons and China. Have we? No sir-ey.
Our Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s been in the job for one and a half years but has only managed wheels up twice. Yes COVID, but the Trade Minister by comparison had done two trips before she’d even got off the ground once.
We just look a bit sloppy and there’s one thing Winston Peters is not - he’s not sloppy on foreign affairs. He may have a little kip during important international meetings but he’s so well-regarded that his counterparts let it slide - and at least he shows up.
The new Aussie Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s only been in the job ten minutes and he’s getting a face to face with Joe Biden before Ardern.
A lot of this is out of the PM’s control but a lot could have been managed better.
And at a time - certainly in my lifetime - when international relations and diplomacy have never been so important. I think this government could benefit from a bit more experience, a bit more silver-haired wisdom, that double-breasted, cigarette scented, whisky diplomacy that actually worked a treat.
This is not something I thought I’d be writing - and I reserve the right to strike it from the record at a future date - but it’s time to bring back Winston.