Nanaia Mahuta, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was interviewed by Jack Tame on Q + A last Sunday morning. They talked about Pacific relationships in light of China’s recent moves in the Pacific, the New Zealand effort to evacuate Afghan nationals, and allegations of conflicts of interest. This transcript of their kōrero has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jack Tame: What will happen if more Pacific countries go with the support of China, and other Pacific countries decide to stay with their traditional allies?
Nanaia Mahuta: I don’t think it’s a binary choice for the Pacific. When I consider the conversations that are being had, there is quite a strong reflection that China has been present and consistent in the region since about the 1970s. They have bilateral relationships.
The space is more contested. Other superpowers are showing an interest in the Pacific. And the Pacific countries like New Zealand are navigating their way through a complex set of relationships — but the focus does come back to Pacific-led priorities.
Now, China wasn’t welcome at the Pacific Islands Forum itself, but the day after — literally, the day after — CCP (Chinese Communist Party) officials held a virtual meeting with various political leaders from across the Pacific. If the first option was considered too disruptive, what do you make of that second option?
I think the first option was — certainly the tone set by the secretariat and our host, Fiji — was to ensure that the focus was on the unity of the Pacific and that the agenda was very much on the Suva agreement, confirming the 2050 strategy, and everything else was peripheral to that.
So why does China being at the forum not represent unity?
I think it’s Pacific-led solutions by the Pacific, first and foremost. That’s how I sense the tone of the conversations and the focus of the forum for this time.
So what do you make of China holding that second virtual meeting with political leaders from across the Pacific the day after the forum?
Well, usually there’s a conversation for strategic partners afterwards; that wasn’t held. So it wasn’t a surprise New Zealand wasn’t invited. I’m not sure what the detail of those conversations were, but we shouldn’t be, I guess, thinking that this was something not expected.
When the Solomons-China deal was signed, you said you wanted it to be discussed at the forum. Was it?
There was a conversation around regional security and regional sovereignty, and the 2050 strategy elevates the focus for the Pacific. And it was really useful to hear [the Solomon Islands] PM Sogavare say that the agreement [with China] will not lead to the militarisation of Honiara. That is an affirming statement, and that addresses much of the concern that New Zealand had outlined.
We had a really interesting interview with Rodney Jones a couple of weeks ago in which he said China’s moves in the Pacific warrant a rethink for our military resourcing in the Pacific. What do you think?
One of the things that we’re doing — and this builds to our urging of the Pacific to look towards each other first — is we’re consulting on our defence assessment with our Pacific neighbours.
And that’s a clear indication that, not only does New Zealand value its relationship and contribution to support regional security arrangements, but we, in consulting on our defence arrangements, are wanting to seek views from the Pacific about what more could be done.
We also have regional declarations that enable us to look to each other first — the Boe Declaration and the Biketawa Declaration. So again, this all puts the centrality of a Pacific focus on defence arrangements as a matter of import and in a way that we can look to each other first.
Would our partners like to see the New Zealand military armed with drones?
By and large, the Pacific are very supportive of how we stand ready and willing to respond very quickly to natural disasters, civil unrest, but also in the ways that we’re supporting other partners in the Pacific to act with a level of urgency when we’re needed, like Australia, like Fiji, like PNG. Like we did in the most recent civil unrest for the Solomons.
In terms of maritime surveillance, there’s a lot of conversation in relation to fishing within the region, how more could be done, and an integrated approach towards maritime surveillance because of illegal, unreported fishing activities. There is a sense that we can work together differently, and should work together differently, to strengthen maritime surveillance.
What might that look like — strengthened maritime surveillance?
It would look like the whole of the Pacific, from the Micronesian states, Melanesia down to Polynesia, thinking about strategic cooperation in the way that we work together to patrol our maritime space in relation to fisheries activities. And that’s the conversation that has been had amongst the forum fisheries grouping.
I realise this is just a conversation at the moment, but does that mean drones?
It could mean a number of things.
Could it mean drones?
It could mean drones. It could also mean extra maritime support, as well as aviation support. But what it really means is a greater strategic and co-operative way of working together, using a range of assets, to be able to ensure greater coverage across the maritime area.
Could those assets include arming New Zealand’s military with anti-ship missiles?
That’s a level of detail that I’ll leave for the Minister of Defence to assess as we continue to engage in conversations around the fisheries issue.
But the fact that we are consulting with the Pacific on our defence approach, I think signals that we’re willing to hear back from our Pacific partners about what the need is, how we’re able to respond, and therefore the consequences of what a response looks like.
Are there lessons in the events in Sri Lanka in the last week for the Pacific?
A couple of things on Sri Lanka. I think we’re all really mindful that the point at which Sri Lanka has reached its political unrest because of economic vulnerability is something we should be concerned about. And it’s something that can be considered in relation to the level of economic vulnerability across the Pacific.
Secondly, we hope for a peaceful way of resolving the situation of appointing and electing a president and a prime minister, and that the constitutional arrangements provide some guidance for that.
If I step back and say: “Okay, what are the lessons here?” — and this is at a time when there’s rising inflation, constrained supply chains, greater economic hardship — the lesson is that we need to find ways to ensure that, across the Pacific, we’re working together to enable labour mobility that supports Pacific aspirations and economic architecture that enables us to work towards outcomes that help the Pacific.
But the issue of economic vulnerability in the Pacific is a key matter that needs to be addressed as well.
Will we take practical steps to call on our friends and allies to relieve the debt of those small nations in the Pacific?
We are engaging in that approach, especially when we think about the way in which other development partners fund projects in the Pacific. You’ll be aware that the way that New Zealand funds is largely by grant funding. We’d like to see the opportunity for development partners to look towards greater coordination of its efforts.
Climate change provides us with an opportunity to work very differently. New Zealand will use our commitment, over the 2022-2025 period, of $1.3 billion — of which 50 percent will go into the Pacific — as an opportunity to leverage with development partners to work differently in the Pacific to support Pacific-led outcomes in terms of climate change challenges.
Are any Pacific nations too indebted to China?
I’d say there’s a level of indebtedness that sits across the whole of the Pacific to financial institutions, including the way in which China has provided funding to certain countries.
At a very general level, this is a key area of vulnerability that should be addressed, and we need to find different ways to work together on the challenges that sit within the Pacific. Largely, they’re around infrastructure, responding to climate change, and existing levels of debt and being able to service them.
Will the partners in the Blue Pacific pact share any intelligence or security information?
I think what we can do, absolutely, is work more strategically together to ensure the way in which we invest to support the Pacific around significant challenges of climate change responses is an area that we can work together. Also, the health of the oceans is another area.
That doesn’t quite answer the question. Will it involve any sharing of intelligence or security information?
It’ll involve a range of things, again, working strategically together around the way in which we invest. Yes, sharing information — lots of different information.
Lots of different information to be able to make a good assessment about how we can help the Pacific. And, you know, these are early days. We continue to be optimistic about how the Pacific are articulating their priorities. The 2050 strategy that has been recently released from the Pacific helps coordinate a conversation that works to the advantage of the Pacific.
(Responding to a clip on the plight of Afghan nationals who’d worked with the New Zealand military and were left stranded in Afghanistan after New Zealand’s evacuation.)
Kia ora. How do you feel when you watch that?
Look, I think New Zealand overall has done an amazing job of bringing 1700 people from Afghanistan back during a really difficult time. When we set the criteria, it was during the period of an emergency evacuation, when the US had signalled that they had a finite point to get out. And we were very mindful that the security issues on the ground, and the logistics on the ground, were at their most precarious and complex.
When I think about the amount of coordination that’s gone into ensuring that we were able to bring back at least a hundred people, if not a little bit more, during the heightened period of coordination to bring people back, it was a lot of work.
And then we announced on the 29th of April this year that we will address the remaining eligible applicants on a case-by-case basis. We recognise we’ve still got work to do. My understanding is that we’ve got about 45 people that we’re still trying to bring to New Zealand.
What about these people who would’ve qualified under that emergency visa because of their association with New Zealand but were unable to apply for that visa and have been unable to apply for that visa ever since?
Look, the detail of the application process and their eligibility is a matter that I would fairly and squarely put with the Minister of Immigration. But in terms of the way in which we’ve set ourselves up to respond since the 29th of April this year, we’re dealing with the remaining applicants that are eligible on a case-by-case basis.
But would you, in your capacity, advocate for opening the eligibility of that visa, even if only for a day, so that people who might be considered eligible will have an opportunity to apply?
I’m not mandated to be able to do that. When we took the decision to set up a set of criteria for a finite period of time, that was a cabinet decision. And so we have stuck to that cabinet decision in the way in which we’ve processed those who are eligible and have applied to come to New Zealand.
Would you support that if it came before cabinet?
Look, I’m not prepared to make a decision in the absence of a conversation at cabinet level, because the criteria were set by cabinet.
Is it kind to leave these people behind?
It’s been a challenge, and I recognise that. And this is a highly emotive issue for those who will feel that they were not included within the limitations of the criteria that were set for a very specific purpose, an emergency evacuation with a finite period, because the logistics of getting people out were pretty difficult. We have enabled 1700 visa applicants to be able to come to New Zealand.
This is the thing. We’re so close.
Yeah, we are.
A few dozen more, and that’s it.
And it will always be a few more, a few more. I understand that. In terms of the refugee quota that will be applied to Afghan citizens that will take place in ’23, ’24, we have that avenue where we’ll be able to address some of the issues that have been raised in that particular piece.
I want to talk about your family. ACT leader David Seymour and National MP Simeon Brown have questioned members of your family receiving government contracts in the time that you have been a government minister. Have you ever had an undeclared or mishandled conflict of interest as a cabinet minister?
I’ve had a situation over these number of years to really consider my family obligations. So, I have declared conflicts and they’ve been managed appropriately and in accordance with the cabinet manual, certainly since I’ve been a minister.
And the challenge for me, I guess, is just how toxic the attacks have been, because even though I say that, and even though there’s been a lot of OIAs and things like that, the level of toxicity of the attacks have been really challenging to manage.
But I come from a family that, since the time of my father who negotiated the first Treaty settlement, got similar personal attacks. So did my mother who negotiated the Waikato River claim and co-governance arrangements.
Now, because I’m pushing through a set of reforms that I think will have beneficial impacts for the environment and for people long-term, especially in the area of water reform, these are issues that have challenged the nation.
Some of the attacks have been targeted at the individual rather than the issue. But I’ve declared conflicts of interest — and they’ve been managed appropriately and in accordance with the cabinet manual.
I know politics is a mucky business at the best of times, but can I ask, in what ways have you felt that the attacks have been toxic?
Well, I’ve stopped looking at them now, but there have been politically aligned advocacy groups that have said things and created a perception that have been harmful, unkind and damaging, leading to cartoons and memes and social media posts and commentary which you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
And when I think about that, I think to myself, well, actually, on the issues that I’m promoting, I’m happy to be held accountable on issues. But when you have criticisms coming from dark corners, closed rooms, people who hide behind pseudonyms and you know they’re politically motivated, and they are attached to political parties . . . I think you’ve got to look to some internal fortitude [to see] why that’s happening.
I don’t think it’s a reflection of our society — a true reflection. I think, by and large, New Zealanders are fair-minded. They do want transparency and accountability, and as a politician I accept that. I accept that.
But when you go to a level of toxic trolling and use of social media to push a certain narrative, to create a certain perception, I worry about that not just for myself, but for the future and health and wellbeing of a lot of people who do really difficult things that may not be popular, but they’re necessary for the benefit of people and for the benefit of the next generation and the environment. Yet they’re subjected to that kind of criticism.
But no one will ever come out truly in front and say these things to your face. Instead, it’s very convenient to hide behind closed doors or behind a keyboard and use that avenue to make their point.
Do you think it’s because you’re Māori?
I think it’s a number of things. I’m a person who has served my community and who thinks that New Zealand deserves a different kind of way forward. And I am a mother — and a Māori woman, in a space where it isn’t always easy. I think all those aspects might be targets in and of themselves.
Will that stop me doing what I think is right or serving the people that I’ve been elected to serve — or having a vision for New Zealand that is better and more confident about who we are biculturally and multiculturally? It’s not going to stop me. It makes my resolve even stronger, because I know New Zealand is better than that. I just know it.
And I have seen far too much positivity in New Zealand to be pulled down by nameless, faceless critics who want to create a perception that is designed to do nothing else but bring out the worst in people. And I won’t let that happen.
(This interview has been edited for clarity. It was screened on TVNZ’s Q + A on Sunday July 17, 2022. )
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