Not much has been seen or heard of Winston Peters since he installed the present Government six and a half months ago. A Deputy Prime Minister is normally more prominent, particularly when the Prime Minister is overseas. But on Jacinda Ardern's jaunts so far, Peter has chosen to accompany her, giving priority to his role as Foreign Minister.
Yet in that role too he has been quiet since making an ill-judged comment on an apparent Russian assault on a former spy in the United Kingdom. But behind the scenes he clearly has been exerting some leverage for the ministry that serves him.
This week he announced a $900 million increase in funds for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Government's first Budget, to be delivered next Thursday. The money will enable the ministry to employ an additional 50 diplomats, re-open an embassy in Sweden and provide more foreign aid, mostly to the Pacific but also to United Nations agencies and institutions such as the World Bank.
Members and supporters of New Zealand First are probably surprised that these should be their leader's priorities. A need for more diplomats, embassies and foreign did not exactly feature in his election campaign. Yet nobody should be surprised. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did exceptionally well in Budget allocations when he was its minister in the last Labour Government, as did his other portfolio then, and now, racing.
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Announcing the foreign ministry's windfall this week, Peters said it had effectively had a 10-year funding freeze under National and was required to show "efficiency returns" that were cuts by another name. The ministry certainly had a demanding task-master in Murray McCully and a restructuring took a toll on diplomats' morale, but Peters should not simply restore their previous funding levels.
If it is worth investing another $900 million in foreign relations against all other demands on this Budget, Peters needs to spell out the benefits we can expect. The speech in which he announced the largesse offered nothing specific. He spoke of a "Pacific reset" which seems to involve listening more closely to Pacific governments and "collaborating" more in (unspecified) development projects.
He talked of an international system under strain, global rules under threat, geopolitical and trade challenges from unnamed countries (China, the US) making it harder to grapple with climate change and the threat of protection. "The South Pacific has become an increasingly contested strategic space," he said. "Our voice has been weakened during the past decade at the same time as Pacific nations face a myriad of challenges they are not, in many cases, equipped to tackle."
Our "voice" has been fairly effective, on the TPP and other fronts. It is not clear that another 50 diplomats will make much difference. But it is at least good to hear Peters giving his voice to sentiments on trade and global engagement that are not his party's normal territory. We will see whether the money he was won for the ministry produces measurable results.