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Right-Talk 11th April: Derailed Diplomacy

Right-Talk 11th April
From The Desk Of Bill English
11 April 2003

Derailed diplomacy

It took more than 15 years for the wounds to heal after David Lange surprised the US with a comprehensive anti-nuclear policy in 1985 when he had promised it wouldn't be a problem for them. Lange had always wanted a ban on nuclear arms, not nuclear-powered vessels, but key backbenchers at the time, like Helen Clark, pushed for a more radical position. After the September 11 attacks, the US rolled out the red carpet for Helen Clark when she visited Washington and we were 'very, very, very close friends." Two weeks ago, she derailed all those years of careful diplomacy with her comments on the presidency and the war. This week she blew up the train by sticking to a half-baked apology for any offence that might have been taken, and has refused to simply say she was wrong. The stakes for New Zealand are huge, far too big to allow the personal pride of the PM to damage the national interest.

Where is the apology?

People expect truth in government and from their Prime Minister, but they didn't get either this week. Helen Clark was asked many times in Parliament to answer two very simple questions: What did her apology to the US say? Was she sorry for what she said? Clark has consistently refused to apologise for what she said, only for the fact that offence was taken. Instead of simply releasing the apology, she tried to minimise her involvement by denying a letter existed and then made Phil Goff own up to the fact that there were two letters. All we know of the apology are comments made by Phil Goff based on a note he made from reading the letters. Parliament is used to Helen Clark's particular brand of slippery dishonesty, but on this occasion it has further damaged the national interest. Our advice from Washington is to forget about a free trade agreement while there is a Bush administration. Clark's comments were bad enough, but her subsequent handling of the apology and explanation of it amounts to the biggest diplomatic setback in decade.

Our constitutional conference

National needs a disciplined, accountable party structure to be able to deliver a successful party vote campaigning under MMP. The constitutional conference in Wellington this weekend is a challenge for the party to make the changes required to be a successful, political machine. I have worked with party president Judy Kirk since the election to put in front of more than 300 party activists the nuts and bolts of the changes we believe the party needs. Back in 1936, the new National Party was determined to combine anti-socialist electoral support in a single, well-organised, democratically functioning, mass-membership party before the next election. The challenge hasn't changed, but the will and the urgency to change is greater because MMP is unforgiving when parties make mistakes.


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