Wednesday , June 26 2019
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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Gerry Brownlee

Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee says his meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week will focus on trading relations, the war on terrorism and relative positions on climate change.

Despite US President Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the door has been left open for negotiations. He also says business will continue to comply: “A lot of the business entities in the United States that have signed up to reducing their emissions have reaffirmed those positions in the last couple of days, so I don’t think we’re seeing a turning back of the clock to any particularly bad position.”

Brownlee says discussions with Israel over our diplomatic relations are ongoing. They are currently suspended, which Brownlee describes as “not a happy place to be”. But he says he’s “very, very confident that we’ll be able to get back to a good position on that in the near future.”

Lisa Owen: The US president is never far from our TV screens at the moment, and he’ll be on the agenda for Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee next week. Brownlee will meet with Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on Tuesday to talk terrorism and trade. Gerry Brownlee joins me now from our Wellington studio. Good morning, Minister. How long will that meeting be? How long will Rex Tillerson be on the ground in New Zealand?

Well, it’s only a matter of hours. I’m not sure exactly how many hours—

Three hours? Does that sound about right?

Could be that. Could be a bit more. But it’s certainly enough time to have a very good bilateral meeting and to discuss the things that are mutually important to us.

Well, given you’ve got a short window of opportunity, what’s going to be your number one priority for that meeting?

Well, look, a lot of that discussion will be organised over the next couple of days as we head towards that meeting, but we’ll obviously want to canvass trading relations. We’ll reaffirm the various commitments that we have internationally toward the defeat of terrorism. And I’d also expect that, given the current, or most recent, decision from the US, that there will be some discussion about relative positions on climate change. But in the end, it is the trading relationship but also the people-to-people relationship with the United States, including our involvement in the Antarctic, for example, that are pretty important to us.

Okay, well, on that note, the Prime Minister has expressed some concern that Washington might be a little bit distracted by Trump’s unpredictability and that the nature of that president may be distracting them from things like economic stability and trade and economic growth in the region. Are you going to raise that with Rex Tillerson?

I don’t think we’ll be raising the issues of US political stability. That’s something for the US, not for New Zealand, to comment on.

But insomuch as it impacts on us – the broader issues.

Well, I think the things that impact on us are the decision around TPP. We’ll update him on where we see the TPP 11 progressing, and we’ll try and get a sense of what reservations might be overcome that might change the US position. But in the end, you’ve got an administration there that has won the presidency and is keeping faith with the people who elected them. And I think beyond that, we don’t have any comment.

Well, Donald Trump said that he was keeping the faith with the people that had elected him when he pulled out of the Paris Accord this week. Was that the right decision – for him to pull the pin on that?

Well, I can’t comment on what was right or wrong for Mr Trump. What I can say is that the door has been left a little bit open about, perhaps, their rejoining. And I think when you consider that the Paris Agreement’s signed up to by 194 countries, 147 countries have ratified that agreement, and then, of course, the G7 most recently reaffirmed their position as far as climate change is concerned.

But the thing is the US pulling out of it—

So I think the door’s not totally closed.

…the US pulling out of this, Minister, it does affect us, because there’s  suggestions that unless they comply, that there will be a 0.3 degree Celsius temperature rise. You can’t ring-fence greenhouse gases. That’s us; we’re included in this. So do they not have a moral obligation to be part of this?

Well, the reason why we have signed up is because it does have a direct effect on us, as it does on all citizens of the world. I think the important thing to recognise in the announcement this week is that the door is not completely closed, and we stand ready to do our part in any negotiation that might see the US take a different position. But I’ll also say this—

But do you really think he’s going to come back into the fold on this?

Well, I’m not going to comment on that, because I think the situation domestically in the US is something for Mr Trump to deal with. But what I do note is that a lot of the business entities in the United States that have signed up to reducing their emissions have reaffirmed those positions in the last couple of days, so I don’t think we’re seeing a turning back of the clock to any particularly bad position. I think what we’re seeing is a desire by Mr Trump to keep faith with the people who elected him, having said that he would pull out, but noting that the door is still open for some negotiation, and whatever we are required to do in that negotiation, we’d be interested in.

Well, you say that the door is still open for negotiation and for him coming back to the table, but he says a lot of climate change is just made up. Do you have some sympathy with that view?

No. I think if you consider, for example, how many fossil-fuel-powered vehicles will be travelling quite a distance in the next 24-hour period across the world and you imagine all of that volume of fossil fuel as one single big fire, then you can start to see that the emission profile from fossil fuels alone is very considerable, and…

So is the–?

…the world’s never seen anything like this before, and it has accumulated over the last few decades, and it would be unreasonable to think it might not have some effect on our climate.

Well, if it would be unreasonable to not appreciate what you’ve just explained, is the US president being wilfully ignorant, or is he just grandstanding politically?

I think he has made a statement to people in the United States who elected him and he’s sticking to that. But, as I said, that’s not stopping businesses and others in the United States considering their emissions profile.

So is he just playing to his voters? Is that what you’re saying?

I’m saying that his domestic politics are one thing and for him to work through and for the US to work through. We will, of course, be interested in negotiating any changes that they might want that might bring them back to the table. But in the end, you’re going to see, I think, a lot of businesses in the US stick with the plans that they had to reduce their emission profile, so it’s not all bad.

So then how worried are you that this is a signal of just how isolationist and protectionist he is prepared to be?

I’m not terribly worried about it, because I’m also very, very optimistic about the technological changes that are coming to the world. If I think back just eight years ago, we made a decision in New Zealand that we would not require registration fees off electric vehicles. And at the time, I think I’m right in saying there were less than 50 vehicles on the road that were affected. Now there are hundreds, and in the years to come, that will be tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, and that alone makes a difference, so you also look at all the other developments of renewable technologies around the world and you can see that just because of the advance of technological and scientific knowledge, you’re going to see a reduction in those emissions,


…so we have some time still to get to a position where there is the full commitment to that from, obviously a big economy like the US.

Let’s move on to a different topic – Afghanistan. Is it continues to deteriorate there, are you prepared to contribute troops in any great numbers in the US ask for that?

Well, it’s not an ask that’s on the table at the moment, and I think we’ve got to see it in the light of Afghanistan being a country that has 34 million people.

But you’re not ruling it out if they ask? You’re not ruling it out at this point?

I’m just trying to set the scene for how we would go about our considerations. So those 34 million people, the vast majority of them want to live peaceful lives. You only have to have a few, as I’ve said so many times, inside a big population like that that can cause a huge amount of problems. The bombing last week was very, very concerning in that regard. But I think it’s worth noting that over the 12 years from 2001 up to 2013, New Zealand had over 3500 Defence Force personnel and Police Force personnel in Afghanistan over that period.

But, Minister, what I’m asking you, bottom line—

Yeah, I’m just coming to it.

What I’m asking you, bottom line, is if you would be comfortable committing our troops to an operation with a heavy US involvement when you’ve got a president who has passed on classified information, his agencies are leaking intel about the Manchester terrorism attack, and he’s conducting foreign policy on Twitter. Would you be prepared to gamble just one Kiwi life on that?

I think what I want to say is that New Zealanders have invested over 100 million since 2001 in stability in Afghanistan. You have a mission there at the moment, Resolute Support, that is run by NATO. And the most recent request to New Zealand has been to contribute more to that. It’s a non-combat mission, and it’s about strengthening both the capability of security forces there and civil society.

But the question is whether you would be comfortable committing more troops to an operation with heavy US involvement, given the factors I’ve just outlined. Would you be comfortable with that?

Well, what I’m trying to say is that that’s a hypothetical question, and we would make a decision about that once something was on the table and there was a clear need for it.

So you’re not ruling it out? 

Well, I’m not ruling it in, either. The reality is, as I said before, we’ve had a large number of Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan, we’ve invested a lot in the security of that country, it is a very small part of the population there that causes the problem, and it is – just like Iraq – the Afghan Government of the day that wants to sort things out as much as they can.

Okay, well, let’s move on to Israel, then. You want to reboot that relationship with Israel. So I’m wondering is it okay for Israel to build settlements on Palestinian land – illegal settlements on Palestinian land – despite international condemnation? Are you okay with that?

Well, that’s not the question that we’re facing at the moment.

It’s the question I’m asking you, Mr Brownlee.

I know it is. But the question that I’m addressing is our ability to speak with Israel in a very free and frank manner that you are able to do when you have solid diplomatic relations, which at the moment are suspended. I’m very, very confident that we’ll be able to get back to a good position on that in the near future.

Have they written back to you? Have they written back to you, and what have they said?

Well, those are discussions that are ongoing, and we would expect to have some announcement on that in the very near future.

So, what, we’re renewing official ties, are we?

Oh, well, look, those are discussions that we’ve obviously said that we want to do that. Remember that in the whole of the Middle East—

But what have they said back to you? What have they said back to you, Minister?

They’ve said that they have received our letter and they’re considering that. Look, these things take a little bit of time. The point is, though, that Israel has a democratically elected government. That government changes periodically, as always happens in a democracy, and it does so with virtually no problem at all. And I think for us not to have a relationship with a democratically elected government in the Middle East is not a happy place for us to be. So we are pursuing that. Those issues that you raise about settlement and other such are the sort of matters that you get to discuss when you do have those democratic relations. But I do think also that there is a bit of a general lack of understanding about what a two-state system might mean in Israel. And in the end, it does have to be the parties to that that reach an agreeable position.

All right, well, just before we go, I want to know, are you prepared to give up your foreign affairs portfolio in order to form a coalition arrangement with New Zealand First after the election?

Well, that’s not really my choice; that’s the choice of the New Zealand voter. And I think if you go into this—

But if it comes to it, Mr Brownlee, are you prepared to take one for the team?

Well, I don’t get that choice. That is the choice of the Prime Minister, the group of ministers who will be involved in any coalition negotiations. But, ultimately, it is the New Zealand voter who will determine which party is going to be the most central party in government beyond the 23rd of September. So we’re out there as a party, not only campaigning on our record but also laying out where we think the future of New Zealand can be, and it’s a pretty bright future, because New Zealanders have worked hard for it.

We’ll cut off the campaign message there, Mr Brownlee. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

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