Reassessing our place in the world
As a strong believer that New Zealand can often learn a lot from looking across the Tasman, just over a year ago I visited Australia to get a sense of how our neighbour sees its relationship with Asia.
On my return, I wrote a column saying that I was concerned about how polarised the discussion had become, particularly when it came to China. The public conversation had become particularly heated after an ABC Four Corners episode that examined Chinese Communist Party influence in Australian politics.
In that column, I suggested the types of conversations that were being had over there could eventually cross the Tasman. And that has certainly been the case. We’ve started to see a sharper and more public discussion about what New Zealand might want its relationship with China to look like. And we know similar discussions have been taking place in other countries.
A few weeks ago, I returned to Australia for an update and met with counterpart agencies, think tanks, academics and government officials. I arrived just a few days after Scott Morrison assumed office as prime minister.
It is fair to say that instability in Australia’s domestic politics has also put the country in a difficult position in its international engagement. The diplomatic reality is that political leaders often need to be the ones who make adjustments or repairs to international relationships – but the attention of recent Australian leaders has, understandably, been domestically focused. (As a side note, Morrison’s first overseas visit was to Indonesia, consistent with that of other prime ministers, and he came back with a new free trade deal.)
From the conversations I had, I got the sense that some of the heat had gone out of the discussion about external influence activities in Australia, but perhaps that was because views on either end of the spectrum have become more entrenched. Positions are now clearly staked out.
I noticed an increased focus on the need to broaden and deepen relationships with a range of Asian countries – Australia is certainly not unique in that regard. While ‘‘business’’ is good, the bilateral relationship between China and Australia seems to have lost some of the shine it enjoyed for several decades.
Since returning from Australia, I’ve been mulling over some of the more contentious topics getting media coverage here in New Zealand. Alongside the what-to-do-with-our-surplus discussion, some of the issues have been pretty challenging ones: freedom of speech; corruption in business and politics; immigration abuses; who New Zealand’s ‘‘friends’’ overseas really are.
We’re hearing more voices raising questions about what New Zealand might need to do to strengthen its ability to protect the principles that underpin our democracy. These voices are talking about civics, including the relationship between citizenship, residency and voting rights; the funding of political parties; and media freedom issues, to name a few.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that New Zealand is not alone in these sorts of conversations. While many New Zealanders can find such topics uncomfortable, they aren’t in themselves bad things.
These sorts of issues generally take a back seat to more immediate concerns for most of us, like the cost of petrol, meeting mortgage payments, or eating five-plus-a-day. But the world around New Zealand is changing at pace.
It’s not as if New Zealanders don’t have a sense of what’s important; as a country we’ve spent a lot of blood and treasure defending what we see as important to us.
As we move to articulate our position on these issues, it is key that we don’t fall for dog whistles or let a few voices dominate discussions. These topics are ones that all New Zealanders, including those reading the business pages, need to have their voice heard on. It’s too important not to engage.
When it comes to what New Zealanders enjoy socially, culturally and economically, I would argue against the view that New Zealand is a ‘‘lucky country’’. Our so-called luck has come off the back of some brave and important decisions we’ve made; decisions based on robust and sometimes difficult conversations.