Fran O'Sullivan: Advice on Trump from an ex-PM

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Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard chatting with Labour leader Andrew Little during his visit to Parliament's debating chamber this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard chatting with Labour leader Andrew Little during his visit to Parliament's debating chamber this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"The challenge of countries like Australia and New Zealand is to do what Bill English and Malcolm Turnbull have done, and that is to stand up for the interests of their country - their first responsibility is to the people who elected them.

"But also to avoid lapsing into too much name-calling and too many gratuitous insults."

Sound advice from former Australian Prime Minister John Howard at the annual transtasman dinner hosted by Australian High Commissioner Peter Woolcott in Wellington this week.

The Trump presidency will strongly influence the agenda for the meeting of the two Australasian prime ministers in Queenstown next Friday.

It is important that both countries put their common interests to the fore at this volatile time, when talk of international trade war predominates and the Reserve Bank has highlighted protectionism as a significant risk to the NZ economy.

There is much to discuss. Can New Zealand and Australia salvage aspects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and also use their combined influence to avert a trade war between the US and China, which would impact our respective economic interests?

Trump does occupy the most powerful and important position in the world, as Howard argued on Wednesday evening.

His impulsive style and volatile temperament is such that most political leaders will tread carefully, knowing that picking a fight may not be in their country's best interests. But stand up for those interests they must.

Trump effectively cut short his interview with the current Australian Prime Minister over a refugee dispute. But both Malcolm Turnbull and English held their ground when it came to putting forward their shared stance that the immigration ban the President had ordered was unjustified.

In Howard's view, there had been an understandable reaction to the President's "unorthodox style".

"I think there has been a sense of shock and disbelief by many that he was elected. But there has also been a tendency by some people to over-react." He cautioned: "the truth is, he is the President of the United States . . . I think that both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill English have demonstrated very clearly the common sense of recognising that he has won.

"I don't know how history will judge the presidency of Donald Trump. But the important thing to bear in mind is, we must want him to succeed. The United States is the leader of the free world."

Howard's points were well made. But it is important that the reaction to the Trump presidency in New Zealand and elsewhere is not simply confined to politics.

Already, there are indications that it could poison business relations in New Zealand.

Case in point: the quite unnecessary vilification of Xero CEO Rod Drury and Trade Me founder Sam Morgan, who supported Peter Thiel's citizenship application and continued to do so publicly after a Herald story revealing that the former PayPal founder had made a profit from a partnership with the government-owned NZ Venture Investment Fund.

It wasn't simply that Thiel had made a buck - but that Drury and Morgan had gone to publicly back him after it became known that Thiel had acquired NZ citizenship outside the usual norms.

And, importantly, that their personal backing for Thiel continued even though Thiel was a personal backer of the US President.

The idea that Drury and Morgan should now have to back away from Thiel - because it must mean they thus support Trump - is far fetched.

Business folks - like others - are entitled to free association. It's called democracy.

But enough of the lecture. The fact is, Thiel has done a huge amount to put Xero on the map in the US, opening the door for Drury to bankers, heads of major tech companies and more. New Zealand consultants on the ground in California say Thiel's advocacy has not been confined to Xero; he has also helped open the doors for other companies.

In Wellington, Howard was speaking to a predominantly capital based audience: Cabinet Ministers, Labour leader Andrew Little, senior Beehive officials and public servants from Treasury, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mfat), the Reserve Bank and more. There were a number of senior representatives from Australia. Many were having to grapple with the challenge Donald Trump's presidency presents.

Mfat chief executive Brook Barrington has now put in place a taskforce which will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure the Foreign Ministry is on top of the rapidly changing dynamics in Washington.

That internal taskforce is headed by Ben King, a previous Mfat secondee to the Prime Minister's Department, who was temporarily recalled from his current role as Ambassador to Thailand to get the taskforce up and running.

Barrington's move followed a public rebuke from Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully over the time it took to find out how the Trump immigration ban would affect some New Zealanders. "I made it clear to the Minister that I think we fell behind the curve on that," he told a select committee. "That's not about the people involved, it's my accountability."

Trump issued an executive order on January 27, imposing a 120-day halt on refugees entering the United States on national security grounds. This barred citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering for 90 days.

The order has been legally challenged and last weekTrump was dealt a major setback after a Federal appeals court ruled unanimously that the US will remain open to refugees and visa holders from the seven Muslim-majority countries.

The indication that the balancing forces in the United States are working should give grounds for confidence.

It's early days in the Trump presidency. But the US is far from being a busted flush.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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