New Zealand is asserting its right to treat trade and security separately when it comes to China, despite its Five Eyes partners.
It would be a foolish person who agreed to a game of poker with Nanaia Mahuta.
She may be the first foreign affairs minister to intuitively get the old David Frost definition of diplomacy: the art of letting someone else have your way.
Such a consummate stealth fighter is the Hauraki-Waikato MP that when she strikes, her victims can spend months unaware they've been hit, though with the dawning realisation that their legs are not where they used to be. There are local bodies the length of the country that still haven't figured out that her Three Waters Reform Programme, announced last year, will mean their inevitable amalgamation.
As for her insouciant Five Eyes comment about China last week, shock waves of confusion are still rippling around the world – to the point where some diplomats are understood to have briefed their ministers that she didn't actually say what she said; or if she did, she didn't mean it; or if she did mean it, she would shortly be told to un-mean it.
To the great bulk of us who don't speak Diplomatic Cable, the speech about the taniwha and the dragon was a bit gnomic. What on earth did the two mythic creatures have to do with the Five Eyes intelligence pact, anyway? Which was precisely her point. In a few understated sentences, she said New Zealand would no longer be baited by our spying partners into bracketing intelligence issues with human- and indigenous-rights issues.
This kerfuffle may seem trivial to the layperson, but it's about the sort of fine distinctions that avert trade sanctions and wars. The other Five Eyes partners, the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia, have taken to upbraiding China for human-rights outages, in statements issued under the Five Eyes banner. New Zealand briefly chimed in with this during the last Government's term, but Mahuta has put a stop to it.
Goody two shoes
It's not a pettifogging differentiation. Beijing interprets the expansion of a hitherto discrete intelligence network – which it indignantly tolerates – into judgmental territory, such as human rights, as an escalation of hostilities from Western allies. As it's intended to be – but not by New Zealand.
Mahuta's view is it's important to deal separately with the different strands of our relationships with other countries.
This country has no major trade beef with China, but we do deplore its denials of human rights to its citizens. To broach such issues while wearing our spy hood alongside our big mates is to forsake diplomacy and risk developing the appearance of an aggressive bloc.
To those who cry hypocrisy, there's a slew of other countries with iffy human-rights practices with whom we make the same distinctions – including our bubble buddy. We don't blockade Australia for its – to us – heinous indefinite detention of illegal immigrants, deportation of New Zealand-born lawbreakers or historical subjugation of indigenous Australians.
If such distinctions weren't made, there would hardly be a country left fit for us to trade with – and many wouldn't have a bar of us, either, given the persistent disparity between Māori and Pākehā health and wealth.
Mahuta's line in the sand was neither as dramatic nor as heroic as it has been painted, since it simply restored New Zealand's position to what it used to be under the previous National Government.
But her timing was eerie, since the very next day, Canberra courted yet another blast of dragon breath by arbitrarily cancelling the state of Victoria's Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China. It's already suffering a range of retaliatory trade sanctions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for offending Beijing. To bystanders, this latest cancellation of what would have been a mutually beneficial set of measures looks a lot like spoiling for a bigger fight. Doubtless, the diplomatic cable-ese for this is: "a granular adjustment of dashboard instruments going forward".
It's possible the harrumphing in other Five Eyes countries is the more phlegm-ridden for the suspicion that New Zealand is tacitly distancing itself from the others' less-admirable human-rights records. Racial tensions in the US are terrifyingly febrile, and Britain faces rekindled Irish hostilities post-Brexit, as well as trying to thwart the Scottish independence movement at every turn.
At least we've given the Fox News and the Daily Telegraph audiences some sport, as they scoff once again at this goody-two-shoes, self-righteous, almost-Covid-free, puny little country at the edge of the world.
Binning the mush
Meanwhile, that other political depth charge, Heather Simpson, is enduring, with her customary sphinx-like composure, the accusation that she has been "rolled" over the health reforms. In the sense that asking for a nice dinner out and unexpectedly being flown to Maxim's in Paris for it is being rolled, then, yes, poor Heather, she must be gutted. The veteran civil servant's report into the health and disability sector was published midway through last year. It recommended mushing the 20-plus health boards into several large hubs and centralising control of them – possibly judging that given ferocious patch protection, it was about as much upheaval as would be politically tolerable.
Apparently to spite her, the Government is going to scrap all the boards, hubs be blowed. We should all be so lucky as to have our wishes callously disregarded in this way.
Those decrying the Government's cautious, centre-vote-appeasing policies were stunned beef-less at this decision. For courage, taking fiefdoms off bureaucrats is up there with stealing cubs from lionesses and giving manicures to scorpions. There's widespread support for the radical move, as disparities in the most basic healthcare between districts have long since become intolerable. But the timing means the inevitable cacophony of special pleading will occur right on election season. With the Covid-19 vaccine rollout set to be slow and chaotic, any extra health noise will not be good news. The Government may be betting voters will blame the incoherent health system – which, look! it is already fixing with sackings and verbal floggings – rather than it.
Heavens, maybe the lioness will believe the cubs are only being borrowed, and the scorpion would quite like French acrylic pincers?
It does appear the plans for the independent Māori Health Authority go much further than Simpson judged prudent, but as the detailed operating and accountability structures are yet unfinalised, that remains to be seen. As things stand, a Heather Simpson Fail looks like a setback we would all enjoy.