Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: English's trip to Europe courtesy of Key

It is hard to adjust to the term Prime Minister Bill English because Key's exit is still perplexing. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
It is hard to adjust to the term Prime Minister Bill English because Key's exit is still perplexing. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Bill English was bequeathed his political honeymoon in Europe by John Key.

It was an unusual way to start the leadership because it is normal for a New Zealand leader to head to Australia first.

And it is unusual because in an election year, one might expect a stronger domestic focus to kick off the political year.

Barely back from English's debut in Europe this week, the focus is still on foreign affairs.

English received a farewell call from US Ambassador Mark Gilbert who had to be gone by midnight last night, before Donald Trump's inauguration in Washington this morning.

The Europe trip had been organised for Key by his officials last year, oblivious of the fact he was privately planning to resign on December 5.

But fulfilling Key's obligations to undertake the Europe trip was a blessing for Bill English.

It was an immersion into international relations at the deep end with the political heavyweights of one of the most important regions on the planet right now.

How could that not enhance his confidence in the job.

For 10 days the newspaper and television coverage of English's trip, including working lunches and press conferences with Theresa May and Angela Merkel, reinforced back here the reality of a new Prime Minister.

It is hard to adjust to the term Prime Minister Bill English because Key's exit is still perplexing.

We could call it the Jerry Seinfeld resignation.

Like the sitcom, the resignation was about nothing: no scandal, no burn-out, no failure, no rhyme, no orthodox reason.

But it has offered Bill English the chance at this year's election to lead a Government to a fourth term for only the third time in New Zealand since 1935.

Excellence at foreign affairs will not win Bill English that fourth term. But do it badly and it will hinder him.

Like all Prime Ministers, he is essentially the Foreign Minister and with 26 years on the clock at Parliament, he can't play the novice card for too long.

Theresa May's interest in English's social investment policy got their relationship off to a constructive start as did advances towards a trade deal in Europe.

Key excelled at international relations. Helen Clark may have been a specialist in international affairs all her life but Key brought his ability for relationships to the role.

Key's personal connections especially with former US President Barack Obama, are legendary and could never be replicated by English.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

They were born five days apart, were elected in 2008 within a week of each other, and have now left office about the same time.

Over summer in one of his exit interviews with the BBC, Obama referenced something Key had told him about universal access to health care.

The close personal relationship between the two ex-leaders - as with any English forms - would have been of little benefit to New Zealand had it not been matched with improved connections and policy between New Zealand and the US across wider areas of Government.

But they did improve exponentially, from a low base. A reminder of just how low that base got was revealed in a recently released treasure trove of CIA papers, one of which was a detailed profile of the Labour Party at the start of the anti-nuclear rift.

The CIA report concluded it was irrelevant to delineate between being anti-American, as some factions of the caucus were, and being anti-nuclear, as the whole caucus was.

The suspicion that New Zealand was anti-American, not just anti-nuclear, persisted in the United States for many years and delayed the repair of the relationship.

Even Mark Gilbert, before he took up his ambassador post, was warned to expect some anti-American sentiment, he said in an interview this week. But he did not encounter a single example of it.

One of the challenges for opponents of Trump across the world, including New Zealand where protests are occurring this morning, is how to delineate between being anti-Trump and anti-American.

It is hard to adjust to the term Prime Minister Bill English because Key's exit is still perplexing.

But with the NZ-US relationship virtually back to normal, English's Government can securely be a spectator as the Trump Administration establishes its crucial relationships with China, Russia, Europe, Britain, Nato and the Middle East.

The US' early plays on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely to be English's primary focus for the months ahead, but even then it may be a watching game for several months.

In all probability New Zealand's relationship with the US, like so many other small players, is about to enter a plateau because of the complexities of the US system.

The top echelon of what resembles the public service is replaced, not just the politicians, and the Congress approval process for some jobs can delay appointments, as Gilbert's was for a year.

The appointment this week of New Zealand businessman Chris Liddell as a White House assistant to President Trump is a legitimate source of pride for New Zealand.

But his work will be in the interests of the president, not New Zealand.

The appointments New Zealand will be focused on will be lower down the food chain at the State Department, namely Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific.

They were positions held by Kurt Campbell and Danny Russel in the Obama Administration, and they have had a huge influence over engagement with New Zealand.

In the meantime, in the foreign affairs space, English will be getting on with establishing relationships with other important players in the region.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is due here next month and New Zealand is due for a high-ranking visitor from China in the first half of the year, likely to be Premier Li Kquiang, with whom English already formed a strong relationship as Finance Minister.

English has little time to put his stamp on foreign affairs. There will be many more opportunities if he wins a fourth term.

The wisdom of what Key has done will be determined by that.

If National wins a fourth term, Key's decision will be seen as selfless and enlightened; if it doesn't, it will be seen as selfish and Key will be blamed as much as English.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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