WikiLeaks cable: Potential for split over NZ-China FTA

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

This is one of the cables about New Zealand held by Wikileaks.

April 15, 2007
SUBJECT: POTENTIAL FOR NZ FOREIGN MINISTER-GOVT SPLIT OVER NZ-CHINA FTA

Classified by DCM David J. Keegan, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

Summary

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1. (C) A source close to Foreign Minister Winston Peters, whose New
Zealand First Party seriously lags in the polls, says Peters may
openly voice his opposition to New Zealand's free trade deal with
China in an effort to secure the loyalty of his voter base. Although
the dispute could strain the private constructive working
relationship between Peters and PM Helen Clark, the Labour Party
needs Peter's continued cooperation to retain control of the
Government and PM Clark would likely publicly play down Peters'
objections. Peters by all accounts relishes his position and would
be loathe to jeopardize it. Even more importantly, as seasoned
political veterans, Clark and Peters understand each other and will
be able to minimize the impact of the issue on their cooperation.

They could even work behind the scenes to limit the damage to the
Government of their "disagreement." End Summary.

Playing to his Party's Support Base?

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2. (C) As a NZ-China FTA comes ever closer to completion, an advisor
to Foreign Minister Winston Peters tells us that Peters might feel
compelled to speak out publicly against the agreement. Peters' NZ
First Party is in trouble, and he needs to secure his party's base.
The latest 3News/TNS political poll showed NZ First's support at a
meager 1.2 percent, well below the threshold needed to retain its
presence in Parliament after the 2008 election. (Comment: Under New
Zealand's electoral system, a party gets seats in parliament if its
Party wins either 5% or more of the total Party votes cast or one of
its candidates wins a local electorate seat. Peters lost the only NZ
First electorate seat at the 2005 election. It's not clear he could
ever win it back. End Comment.)

8. (C) A good part of NZ First's support base is made up of low wage
workers and manufacturers, who admire the party's particular brand of
economic nationalism and Peters' passionate defense of their sector
from foreign interests. Throughout the 2005 campaign Peters asserted
that a NZ-China FTA would cripple the local manufacturing sector and
create widespread job losses. Our source says Peters and his caucus
remain committed to opposing to trade deals with low-wage economies.
Schism would strain relationship with PM Clark and Goff

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4. (C) Peters governing arrangement with PM Clark permits him to
oppose the Government publicly on any issues that fall outside of his
foreign affairs portfolio, including trade. He is likely to express
any criticism as leader of NZ First and not Foreign Minister. But
regardless of his cover, going public over his opposition to the
China trade deal would likely create at least the appearance of a
schism with the Government and put a strain on his relations with
Clark. Most analysts assume the PM will use the conclusion of a
China FTA to offset criticism that her government has failed to gain
a free trade agreement with the United States. Clark is a political
pragmatist, and she relies heavily on Peters' continued support to
retain her Government's slim majority in Parliament. She will
therefore likely publicly play down Peters' opposition to the China
deal. Behind closed doors, however, she could resent Peters for
causing the political and PR problems that would likely ensue,
particularly if he chooses to announce his objection in the run up to
the next election.

5. (C) Peters' has thus far managed to avoid a public split with
Trade Minister Phil Goff (who shares responsibility for the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where he served as Foreign Minister in
the previous Labour administration). Peters' decision to criticize a
China FTA success could initiate a public and potentially nasty
feud. Despite his freedom to do so, Peters has resisted commenting on
the Trade portfolio. As Foreign Minister before Peters, Goff
initially did steal some of Peters' foreign policy limelight
immediately after the new Government was formed in late 2005, for
example by being the first to reach areas in the Pacific affected by
the Tsunami. Of late, however, Goff has become quiet on foreign
policy issues, focusing instead on his defense and trade portfolios.

Possible timing of any public objection

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6. (C) Peters' advisor told us that the most likely timing of a
public announcement of Peters' objection to the trade deal will come
during the three months before the next election - which constitutes
the official campaign period in NZ. Post understands that during
this time Peters will restrict his overseas travel to a bare minimum
and concentrate on reviving New Zealand First's electoral prospects.

7. (C) Comment: Peters' opposition to the China FTA would embarrass
Labour but it is unlikely he would bring down the Government. Nor is
it likely that he would lose his Foreign Affairs portfolio as a
result. A seasoned political veteran, Clark would understand his
motivation. (And as a seasoned veteran himself, Peters might even
precook his "criticism" with the PM in advance.) The main opposition
party National might try to use Peters' criticisms to claim he is
unfit for office, in an effort to drive a wedge between Peters and
the Government as they unsuccessfully tried to do two years ago. But
as NZ businesses strongly favor the China FTA, the Nats are unlikely
to want to see a prolonged debate over the agreement and will
probably not push the issue too far.

McCormick

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