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.