Has New Zealand sold out to Japan by backing a compromise proposal before the International Whaling Commission which would reopen the door to commercial slaughter of whales, albeit in limited numbers?

The answer is an emphatic "no". If John Key and his Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, should plead guilty to any charge, it is to one of being realistic.

The one-dimensional "you are either with us or against us" nature of the debate between the pro- and anti-whaling brigades leaves little room for the subtlety and nuance of diplomacy which - despite the hairy chest-beating of Australia's Rudd Government - is the only viable means of reducing the ever-increasing number of whales being harpooned in the southern oceans.

Even the merest hint of concession to the Japanese had the Government this week labelled as "pro-whaling" by Labour. That is absurd. It is equally absurd to paint the Government's caution compared with Australia's bellicosity as evidence National does not give a toss about the environment.

Were that true then Sir Geoffrey Palmer - someone with a passion for preserving the environment and the expertise in international law to make it happen in this case - would by now have presumably resigned as New Zealand's Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission.

As New Zealand's representative, the Labour-appointed Sir Geoffrey has been deeply involved in trying to bridge the bitter divide between pro-and anti-whaling countries which threatens to destroy the commission itself.

That was the case before National came to power. All that has changed since is the increasingly dire warnings he is making about the commission's future if compromise is not reached.

The status quo on whaling is no longer tenable. Japan's ships continue to steam through the huge loophole which permits whales to be killed for "scientific" purposes. The number of whales slaughtered each year for science has risen steadily from 300 in 1990 to an expected 3000 this year.

Australia's threat to take Japan to the International Court of Justice might make people feel a lot better about those figures. It will not save one whale. It could in fact endanger many more.

It would be years before the court made a judgment. If Australia were to lose its case on the legality of whaling, it could be open slather on the species.

The only thing Australia is likely to achieve is wrecking any consensus on the plan to allow commercial whaling for a 10-year period, but with big cuts in the numbers killed each year,

This plan would buy time for the commission while restoring some control over the numbers killed - something it is powerless to do with regard to scientific whaling .

The indications are that the Japanese are willing to be flexible. The numbers being put on the table are seen as a starting point for negotiations.

National knows any deal must mean significant cuts in the number of whales slaughtered compared with current levels if New Zealand's public is to buy it.

No one pretends such a compromise is ideal. As Sir Geoffrey said, it means nations having to swallow a "dead rat", upsetting their domestic constituencies.

With an election later this year, narrowing opinion polls plus a manifesto commitment to go to the international court, Kevin Rudd is having severe problems with digestion. His tough talk should be seen for what it really is - utter expedience, making New Zealand's stance look principled in comparison.