Little sets out stance on unstable international ground

Labour leader Andrew Little says New Zealand should be showing more leadership on climate change. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Andrew Little says Kiwis should not expect a significant shift in foreign policy under a Labour-led government - but he believes we should be showing more leadership in climate change. Sam Sachdeva reports.

In an increasingly uncertain global climate, it’s a big ask to predict New Zealand’s course - a fact Andrew Little did not shy away from noting.

Speaking at a New Zealand Institute of International Affairs event, the Labour leader said the political ground was moving, as exemplified by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

“What stands out is that both results ran completely counter to the conventional political commentary of those countries and of the day...

“Our democratic systems, flawed and imperfect as they always have been, are increasingly incapable of keeping up with changes in the demands and expectations of the communities they serve.”

Little said some people were being left behind by technological and economic change, with growing inequality and a heightened sense of insecurity.

However, globalisation was “neither a panacea nor a Pandora’s box”, having lifted many people out of poverty while also creating uncertainty and allowing multinational corporations to benefit disproportionately.

"We can't stop change and I would not want to - the tide of technological change and innovation will continue, and so it should. What we can do, however, is chart a path that gives New Zealanders the confidence to face the challenge.”

While the unpredictability of new US President Donald Trump has caused some angst in the international community, Little said international institutions like the United Nations could provide a “strong and vital” check on individual administrations.

“It’s an old adage that politicians come and go, but institutions remain...the challenge right now is to ensure the idiosyncrasies of the Trump administration - with all due respect to him, of course - don’t weaken the world’s collective ability to work together.”

'Scourge' of Isis

Speaking about the “scourge” of Islamic State, Little said wars in the Middle East and terrorism in Europe rightly occupied significant attention.

While factions within Syria and Iraq had joined forces to “all but defeat” Isis with international support, it was important not to lose sight of the underlying sectarian conflicts in the countries that could later emerge.

“You talk to the American generals running the operations in Iraq, as I did last year...they will tell you that what exercises their minds most right now is what happens after Mosul is secured, because there are a lot of sectarian interests that are ready to stake out their territorial claims within the country - to say nothing of Syria.”

Little said he was troubled by recent blockades of Qatar, an “alarming escalation of tensions” between the Gulf states.

“High fences do not make for neighbourly relations, as Mexico has been telling us for the last six months.”
The Labour leader also addressed recent controversy over New Zealand’s position on Israeli settlements, saying his party strongly supported a two-state solution.

“The Palestinian state has the same right to exist as Israel...that right to exist means it cannot have its borders effectively shrunk year after year by the housing encroachments of an occupying power.”

On defence over immigration, trade

Little came prepared to defend his party’s stance on immigration, saying his call for “a breather” while new infrastructure was built did not detract from the skills and talents that new migrants brought.

“I look forward to the day when we have the homes, the roads, the schools and the other facilities so that everybody who comes here can enjoy the benefits comfortably of what New Zealand has to offer.”

While Labour was a strong opponent of the TPP trade deal, Little said that did not mean it was opposed to all trade.

“The Labour Party is the party of trade - we negotiated the China free trade agreement, and we will always support market access where it is in the national interest.”

However, it would always oppose agreements such as the TPP which “placed private corporate interests above our national interest” through provisions like investor-state dispute settlement clauses.

“I have never accepted the argument that in the 21st century, international trade must always come at the expense of a country’s democratic right to legislate in the interests of its citizens.”

The former foreign minister Murray McCully spoke of the need to hold “fundamentally mainstream New Zealand positions”, able to withstand changes of government - a doctrine Little said he would adhere to.

“As a small country, it doesn’t help if our voice or at least the tone of it changes every time there is a change of government - we hold to good old-fashioned liberal democratic values, in terms of the rights of citizen, the right of the state.”

Labour was “totally committed” to agreements important to New Zealand’s national security, such as the controversial Five Eyes alliance.

Little said there were some areas in which a Labour-led government would differ from National, pointing to uncertainty over the current Government’s position on Israel and its lack of leadership on climate change.

“We ought to be a strong voice in this [climate change], the commitments we make ought to be meaningful, and that's about us leading by example as well - you can expect to see us talking openly and willingly about it in a way we’re not at the moment.”