Brownlee makes impact but not all good

It was a patchy first week for Gerry Brownlee in his debut as Foreign Minister, seen here today with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at their post-bilateral talks press conference in Sydney. (Photo / AP)

4 May 2017

Audrey Young – NZ Herald

As first weeks go, Gerry Brownlee made an impact in his debut as Foreign Minister but it was no triumph.

On the two big issues, involving Australia and Israel, respectively, it was a patchy first week.

First the positive: Brownlee secured an early meeting with Australian counterpart Julie Bishop when it became clear that New Zealanders were upset by further erosion of the special status Kiwis have had in Australia, this time with higher tertiary fees.

It was almost certain he would have gone to Australia first to meet her, whatever the circumstances had been.

But he secured a meeting at short notice and a brief press conference with her afterwards.

The “deliverable” from that meeting sounds paltry but in fact was all that could be expected.

Bishop and Brownlee agreed that officials should be in closer contact about matters that affect each other’s citizens.

They will not be reviewing anything, Bishop emphasised. “With a new Foreign Minister, we took the opportunity to confirm that our officials will continue even closer engagement on domestic policies of our respective Governments as they impact on our respective countries.”

A backdown on the tertiary fees decision was never on the cards, given that Australians and other international students as well as Kiwis are all facing higher tertiary fees.

There was no commitment not to screw Kiwis even further but the Government may be given a confidential heads-up next time they screw us, and at least a chance to try to stop it.

On the issue of Israel, Brownlee took a decision to write to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to mend the diplomatic rift over New Zealand’s sponsorship of a UN Security Council resolution condemning continued Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

It was always going to be on Brownlee’s agenda. But the fact he did it within hours of becoming Foreign Minister was an appropriate use of symbolism that should not be lost on Israel.

However Brownlee broke the cardinal rule of any foreign minister – which is never to be out of step on any foreign affairs issue with the Prime Minister, who is ultimately the Chief Foreign Minister. Never ever, not even by a whisker.

In an interview Brownlee implied that the UN resolution should not have been passed until the Israelis had agreed with it, which is a perverse view of how to treat countries that defy international law.

Brownlee said the resolution had been “premature” and that the value of any resolution was in “the willingness of the parties who are having the resolution imposed upon them to accept what’s in it.”

It was not only an implicit criticism of New Zealand’s co-sponsorship under his predecessor, it was at odds with Bill English telling another group of reporters, that he did not regret New Zealand’s role and it had been consistent with long-standing policy.

Paula Bennett was left to defend Brownlee in Parliament with an inventive explanation that he had really meant the Israelis should have had more notice of the resolution.

It may not have grabbed the headlines but Brownlee’s rookie error will be filling cables to capitals all around the world.

[Read the NZ Herald article].

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