John Key blew it when he left a trade delegation after the Anzac Day tragedy, says Dr John Langley.
I was recently part of a 90-person New Zealand delegation to the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states.
These states include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. They have about 40 million people and a GDP of about US$1.1 trillion. In short it is the wealthiest region of the world.
Furthermore the GCC states seem to be keen to trade with New Zealand and view us as favourable partners politically and commercially. This is a unique opportunity for New Zealand to develop a special relationship with one of the oldest and most fascinating parts of the world.
Despite this region being one of New Zealand's potentially largest trading partners, if not the largest, until last week, no cabinet minister let alone a prime minister had visited it five years.
This is despite that fact that New Zealand companies have been successfully operating in the GCC states for a number of years and the potential for future growth is enormous.
The delegation led by our Prime Minister would have had an enormous impact in consolidating our current operations in the region and paving the way for development in a wide range of industries and professions.
And we blew it.
On Anzac Day, a helicopter carrying four servicemen crashed in Wellington. Three were killed and the other injured. The Prime Minister's knee-jerk reaction was that he had to return to New Zealand.
Why? There is no doubt that this was a terrible tragedy made all the more poignant because of the day on which it occurred.
But is that a reason for a prime minister to abandon his international obligations and rush back to New Zealand to do little more than pander to New Zealand public opinion and our moralistic and judgmental press?
Would he have rushed back if the three killed had been a rescue helicopter team or for three people killed in road accidents? I think not.
What the Prime Minister might have done is contact the families of the deceased servicemen, issued a public statement about the tragedy and then let his deputy represent him. That is why he is the deputy - to take the helm at times precisely like this.
He should have assumed that the New Zealand public might be intelligent enough to understand that his obligations and duties as prime minister do, at times, conflict with local events, that he has to weigh these, and do what is best for the long-term future of the country.
That does not include scuttling back to New Zealand and abandoning an incredibly important mission that is the precursor to the signing of a free trade agreement between New Zealand and one of the wealthiest regions of the world. His actions were short-sighted and irresponsible.
It is hard to know what the GCC states will make of what happened here. No doubt they will be courteous to a fault as they always are, but I can only suspect that they would be somewhere between baffled and bemused at what happened.
To add insult to injury on the front page of the Herald on Tuesday is yet another photo opportunity of the Prime Minister clad in flak jacket and smile glad-handing it with the troops in Afghanistan.
What on earth is this about apart from another attempt to curry favour with the local electorate and press? I wonder also what the GCC states make of such an action?
It has often been said that one of the problems New Zealand faces is that we are unable to have adult conversations about important issues with ourselves. This incident reinforces that concern to a tee.
Had the Prime Minister stayed with the delegation the reaction of the New Zealand news media would have been tiresomely predictable.
Someone like a sneering John Campbell or Mark Sainsbury making whoopee about the fact that here we have three brave boys killed in the line of duty while the Prime Minister is swanning around in a delegation in another part of the world.
There would have been almost no analysis of the situation or its significance for New Zealand, little balance of the view presented and the ever-present moralistic judgments that are made at such times.
There is no doubt that when an event such as a tragic crash occurs it is a difficult and emotional time for all involved. There is also no doubt that many are torn in terms of what to do. There is even less doubt that sometimes hard decisions need to be made.
That is when effective leadership is truly tested, when the obvious and popular reaction is not taken and when those in leadership roles use such situations to add to public discussion and information about the priorities New Zealand faces.
Sadly, in this case such leadership was not demonstrated by the Prime Minister.
Some pride was salvaged by the heroic efforts made by Trade Minister Tim Groser. With the Prime Minister having abandoned the delegation, he stepped up magnificently to try to cover what he could, salvage what he could and limit the damage where he could. The delegation and New Zealand owe him a great deal.
Unlike his leader, though, his picture was not on the front of any New Zealand paper. Priorities?
* Dr John Langley is chief executive of Cognition Education and member of the GCC delegation.