Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has backed Foreign Minister Winston Peters' push for free trade with Russia, saying New Zealand should be looking to be able to trade around sanctions imposed as other countries did.
Her support followed National Party leader Simon Bridges calling Foreign Minister Winston Peters an "apologist for Russia" and questioning his apparent sympathy for US President Donald Trump's new tariffs.
Peters has long advocated for the free trade agreement with Russia to be pursued after negotiations were put on ice in 2014 and sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.
Peters told the Herald yesterday that human rights issues had not stopped New Zealand having free trade agreements with other countries and Russia should not be an exception.
"I'm talking about trade as a separate area otherwise if we have become so judgmental and so moral about everything, we would not be trading with anybody."
He said there was as yet no evidence of Russian involvement in either the missile strike over Ukraine on MH17 in 2014, which killed 298 civilians, or of Russia's involvement in tampering with the US election.
Peters did not believe the trade talks should be put on hold until investigations into those two events were concluded.
"That would be a tragic waste of time. If it was found the insinuation was not a fact, then we would have just wasted a whole lot of time not in the country's interest."
He said the EU and United Kingdom still had "substantial trade" with Russia while New Zealand waited.
New Zealand is also pursuing a trade agreement with the European Union and last year its diplomat, Bernard Savage, said moves towards thawing relations with Russia would be viewed in a "very negative" light by the EU.
Ardern said the EU talks remained a priority but she defended Peters' stance on Russia.
She said Peters was pointing out that while the sanctions on Russia were in place, other countries had been trading around them.
New Zealand had applied the spirit of those sanctions, but was subject to non-tariff barriers in Russia. It was seeking to overcome those "and just make sure New Zealand is treated fairly in the same way others have traded around the sanctions, as is appropriate."
Ardern said the Government was seeking an exemption from Trump's tariffs because they were aimed at countries which exported more to the US than they imported - something that did not apply to New Zealand.
Bridges said Peters' pro-Russia advocacy was "troubling", Peters was using "alternative facts" and appeared to be taking New Zealand's foreign policy down a road built on his own prejudices.
"Around China, a much more sceptical tone and then in relation to Russia, effectively a much more supportive tone when you'd have to say there are very significant human rights issues and other issues that go with Russia."
Bridges said there also appeared to be a change on the issue of protectionist measures in the US after Peters voiced some sympathy for those as "even-handed fairness".
"He's effectively standing up for these trade sanctions that President Trump is talking about and what we know from successive governments is that protectionism doesn't work from New Zealand's perspective."
Ardern said it was not for her to pass commentary on other countries' elections and the inquiries were still under way into the MH17 incident to determine who was responsible.
Peters said Bridges was "talking hogwash" if he believed it would endanger the trade talks with the EU, given the EU itself was trading with Russia.
"Simple Simon said that, and I said 'no, countries understand that trade is where we try and do trade with everyone we can'.
We have to trade with anybody and everybody around the world we possibly can. And these are things on our radar."
Thirteen Russian nationals and several entities have been indicted in the US for alleged interference, but Russia's President Vladimir Putin has denied Kremlin involvement.
The Dutch-led investigation into the MH17 incident has found the missile was Russian-made and transported from Russia but any links to the Russian Government are still being investigated.