John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Guess who won't get Foreign Affairs

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Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Greg Bowker
Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Greg Bowker

"Is New Zealand the new international bully?" pondered a headline on the Christian Science Monitor's website yesterday.

Hardly. Nevertheless, the extensive international media coverage suggests Gerry Brownlee's hastily composed, somewhat erroneous, but fundamentally satirical expose of everything wrong with Finland has done more to lift New Zealand's profile in Scandinavia and beyond in a week than a score of those job loss-threatened Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomats might achieve in years.

Mind you, it may require roughly that number of the latter to repair relations with Helsinki - a relationship of such vital importance that is it is handled by the New Zealand Embassy in Holland, while the last minister-to-minister contact was an education-related visit by Anne Tolley more than three years ago.

Had Tolley briefed Brownlee on her findings, the current storm in a diplomat's cocktail glass might never have happened. Such are the feathers now in supposed need of unruffling that it was fortuitous timing that John Key should bump into the Finnish President at the Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea on Monday.

The Prime Minister expressed regret for Brownlee's comments in Parliament last week which also proved something else: when it comes to jibes, there is another small country whose inhabitants have an even thinner skin than New Zealanders.

Still, Key might well have woken up in a cold sweat yesterday morning. With Bill English in Tonga, Brownlee - National's No 3 - was suddenly Acting Prime Minister. It might be only for a day. But would the power go to his head? Which friend of New Zealand would he pick on next?

Key need not have worried. Brownlee arrived at National's weekly caucus meeting promising peace in our time and armed only with a Nokia cellphone - "a little bit of Finland" which was with him all the time.

He did not so much apologise for what he had said as apologise for people not seeing the humour in it. He did not use the Finnish word for satire - "karikatyyri". Not only because it is unpronounceable.

Judging from the crass attack on Brownlee's size and weight by a Finnish talk show host, satire also seems to be a rather scarce commodity in a country whose idea of a good time is plunging into holes cut in the ice of frozen rivers.

Holding the fort for Key during afternoon question time in Parliament, Brownlee played equally safe.

He brushed aside a string of questions about the "teapot tape" saga by taking the line that Key had at the time been acting in his capacity as leader of the National Party rather than as Prime Minister. Because the matter did not involve ministerial responsibility, he was not obliged to answer questions on Key's behalf on the subject. So there.

His argument was somewhat undermined by Key's statement the day before welcoming the police decision not to prosecute the freelance cameraman responsible for the taping. Key made that statement under the title of "prime minister" and it was distributed on ministerial letterhead.

Never mind. Brownlee had done enough to stonewall Opposition parties to satisfy his boss. Just don't pencil him in as being in the running for the Foreign Affairs portfolio the next time Key reshuffles his Cabinet.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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