Mahuta’s NZ foreign policy is on the run
After a year in office, Nanaia Mahuta is making her first mark as New Zealand’s foreign minister.
This month, Ms. Mahuta released a new blueprint for Pacific engagement and is serving as the country’s top diplomat for the first time abroad.
But the direction of New Zealand under Mahuta, Labour’s first female foreign minister in 15 years, remains questionable.
Jacinda Ardern surprised everyone when she named Ms. Mahuta to the post last November after following former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters after his NZ First party lost in the 2020 election.
Ms. Mahuta is a trailblazer: She is the first woman to hold the role aside from a caretaker job for Helen Clark.
In her first major speech in February as part of the Waitangi Day celebrations, she promised to underpin New Zealand’s foreign policy with Maori values, in line with the Waitangi Treaty.
“It is time to ensure a more inclusive approach to indigenous issues that are a feature of foreign policy,” she said.
She called these, including “Manaaki” or reciprocity, “Whanaunga” or divided humanity, and “Kaitiaki” or caring for future generations.
Her predecessor is one of many waiting to see the impact on Kiwi’s foreign policy.
“So there is a change of direction. But where?” Mr Peters said AAP.
“It’s like an old saying: when a ship leaves a port without a port, any wind is a good wind.
“I don’t criticize anyone except to say, ‘What is this about? Where is this going? How is that and what about our hard-earned international relations?'”
The first understanding of the new set of values may be evident in the new Pacific Outlook unveiled this month.
The government carried out the “Pacific Reset” in its first term and now Ms. Mahuta is switching to “Pacific Resilience” and explains this with the metaphor of a fishing net.
“The Pacific Reset was very ‘grid’ focused. The main objective was to reaffirm the importance of the relationship with the Pacific,” she said.
“A Pacific Resilience focus is about learning to use the web for maximum benefit and using the Pacific partnership for intergenerational impact.”
The policy is again based on Maori values, including “Tatai Hono” which recognizes deep connections and “Turou Hawaiiki” which works together.
Anna Powles, senior lecturer at Massey University, said the speech showed “the Pacific is at the heart of the minister’s foreign policy thinking.”
Dr. Powles added, “Mahuta’s vision of the Pacific is through the prism of Polynesia,” understandably given its constitutional ties to the Cook Islands, Nieu and Tokelua, and strong personal ties with Tonga and Samoa.
“This is a tension that needs to be addressed. The Pacific Reset has been referred to as a ‘poly reset’ in some circles (and) this contradicts the depth of New Zealand’s engagement with Melanesian states, ”she writes in Foreign Policy Outlet Inclination.
Dr. Powles concludes by saying that her speech was “more vision than strategy,” which raises further questions.
Nina Hall, Johns Hopkins academic and member of the New Zealand Alternative Committee, says Ms. Mahuta has at least one vision.
“Mahuta has clearly expressed its intention to adopt a foreign policy based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and New Zealand’s bicultural values,” she told AAP.
“Winston Peters never outlined such a vision for New Zealand. Compared to Mahuta, he also took a more pro-American stance.”
Ms. Mahuta begins personal diplomacy this month.
Her first trip abroad is to Australia – meeting with Foreign Minister Marise Payne last Friday – Singapore, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the USA.
Other business of government and domestic politics deterred her from traveling earlier.
Ms. Mahuta holds other ministerial positions and is responsible for the multi-billion dollar Three Waters reform, which is taking a long time and has attracted a lot of criticism.
A political imperative also kept them at home: Kiwis were critical of the other two traveling ministers during the COVID-19 pandemic and viewed their trip as “stealing” a quarantine location for kiwis from overseas eager to come home.
However, respected foreign policy observers believe that Ms. Mahuta should have left NZ sooner than now.
Audrey Young, a lifelong member of the Press Gallery and the NZ Herald correspondent, criticized Ms. Mahuta in this regard, also calling her a “newbie” and “largely unproven”.
Ms. Mahuta is a bad media artist: she shuns the press, usually refuses interviews and often sweats visibly when asked.
Ms. Mahuta gave a rare interview to Ms. Young and said she plans to spend 2022 “building strong architecture that shapes the coherence of our approach to human rights”.
She does not want to explain why the allies Australia and New Zealand are treated differently by China, even though both are critical of the superpower’s human rights record.
“Australia is responsible for its own foreign policy and how it manages its relations,” she told the Herald.
“For New Zealand, we know that good, strong relationships allow you to disagree.”
In 2022, New Zealand will reestablish international relations disrupted due to COVID-19: borders will reopen and real diplomacy will resume.
Both Ms. Mahuta and Ms. Ardern will spread their wings: the Prime Minister has already committed to an Australian business trip and a European trade swing.
Trips to the USA, China and the Pacific are also tempting, if many hope that New Zealand’s new foreign policy could take off.
Erin Matariki Carr, co-manager of New Zealand Alternative, said Ms. Mahuta’s vision was promising.
“She would like to lead with indigenous values, the Tirohanga Maori (worldview) and said that ‘what the world needs now is a commitment to empathy, sustainability and cross-generational solutions for well-being'”, she told AAP.
“This would mean prioritizing issues such as climate change, regenerative food systems, disarmament and actively speaking out against existing repressive and colonial forces in places like Papua and Palestine. We are not seeing this at the moment.”