Give Brown­lee a chance in role


While some peo­ple may baulk at the thought of Gerry Brown­lee be­ing the face of this country to the out­side world, ap­point­ing Brown­lee to re­place Mur­ray McCully as For­eign Min­is­ter makes sense. China is our largest trad­ing part­ner and Brown­lee is a known quan­tity in Bei­jing, thanks to his mul­ti­ple vis­its as De­fence Min­is­ter. In that De­fence role, Brown­lee was reg­u­larly re­quired to steer a del­i­cate mid­dle course be­tween the US and China over the mil­i­tary ten­sions in the South China Sea. Much of the diplo­macy re­quired will be old hat to him.

In any case, Brown­lee should be al­lowed to learn on the job. Fa­mously, his pre­de­ces­sor had what could char­i­ta­bly be called a steep learn­ing curve. Ini­tially, McCully’s ten­ure as For­eign Min­is­ter was marked by a se­ries of diplo­matic scan­dals, pol­icy and ad­min­is­tra­tive up­heavals at the Min­istry, and ex­pen­sively bun­gled ini­tia­tives. Yet over the past 12 months, McCully’s ef­forts on the Syr­ian civil war, Pales­tinian au­ton­omy and UN re­form have been skil­fully de­liv­ered – both to our diplo­matic ad­van­tage, and for po­ten­tial trade ben­e­fits in the Mid­dle East.

Un­for­tu­nately for Brown­lee, states­man­ship is en­ter­ing a pe­riod of rapid change. The Obama White House was so­phis­ti­cated enough to ac­cept the way we’ve jug­gled our trade ties with Bei­jing and our de­fence ties with Wash­ing­ton. Un­der Obama, the Amer­i­cans barely blinked in Septem­ber 2015 when Brown­lee sung the praises at a Bei­jing ban­quet of ‘‘our Five Year En­gage­ment Plan with the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army’’ be­fore adding for good mea­sure that ‘‘We do not see our de­fence re­la­tion­ships with the United States and China as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.’’

Times have changed. The cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the White House has a dif­fer­ent world­view, one that treats power as a zero/ sum game from which the US must al­ways be seen to emerge as the win­ner. It is an ap­proach that leaves lit­tle room for subtlety, or any­thing much other than blind loy­alty from Amer­ica’s friends and al­lies. If South China Sea ten­sions do ratchet up, New Zealand could well be pres­sured to choose sides overnight, re­gard­less of our trade in­ter­ests. If that hap­pens, Brown­lee would al­ways be able to con­sole him­self with the thought that any­one’s diplo­matic skills would have tested to break­ing point dur­ing the Trump era.

In pass­ing, the Brown­lee ap­point­ment was typ­i­cal of the sort of cau­tious Cab­i­net reshuf­fle we would ex­pect from Bill English. Rasher souls might have been in­clined to stamp their own iden­tity on the gov­ern­ment they now lead, or felt im­pelled to of­fer at least a hint of fresh ideas. Not English. Rather than ex­pel un­der­per­form­ing col­leagues such as Nick Smith, he’s re-as­signed some of Smith’s more volatile roles (eg in so­cial hous­ing) and hope­fully put him out of harms way. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, more work has been piled on the Cab­i­net work­horses, such as Jus­tice Min­is­ter Amy Adams.

With an elec­tion loom­ing will the ‘‘kitchen Cab­i­net’’ suf­fer from hav­ing Brown­lee away a lot over­seas? Hardly. Po­lit­i­cal strate­giz­ing has never been his long suit. Be­tween the May Bud­get and elec­tion day, it will be the core team of English, his deputy Paula Ben­nett, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Steven Joyce and Adams who will be do­ing most of the heavy lift­ing.

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