Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 31 March 2006 31 March 2006

A Weekly Report from the Keyboard of Murray McCully
MP for East Coast Bays

A Challenge for Mr Peters

The new Hamas administration for the Palestinian Authority was sworn in this week. Governments and leaders around the world commenced releasing the positions they had been formulating in the weeks since the Hamas election victory. At issue is whether an organisation whose signature has been the suicide bomb could possibly play a part in forming a durable peace in the region.

In New Zealand, there were questions about whether the Government would put a firm stake in the ground on our behalf; and whether our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Peters, would continue the pro-Palestinian stance adopted by his predecessor, Phil Goff.

The Palestinian Authority survives on international charity. The reactions of potential donors are pivotal to achieving a shift in position from the previously intransigent Hamas. Governments and leaders around the world have been quick to require the renunciation of violence and the recognition of the right of Israel to exist as bottom line requirements for the Palestinian Authority to maintain international relations, and to enjoy continued international charity.

Canada was quickly out of the blocks, suspending government to government contact, and any ongoing funding, until the twin bottom lines (renounce violence, recognise Israel) were met. The US had been telegraphing the same position for weeks. As had most of the civilised free world.

But New Zealand is out of step with most of the rest of the civilised world. The Clark Government has been noticeably pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. To the point where previous Foreign Minister Phil Goff chose a photo op holding hands with Yasser Arafat, over an opportunity to meet with the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon. So how, the commentators wondered, would the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Peters, handle the evolving Middle East picture.

Well, the same way he handles everything else, of course, is the answer to the question – by doing exactly as he is told by his pro- Palestine Ministerial colleagues and MFAT officials. Mr Peters hopes that the whole issue would pass without notice were dashed when the National Party spokesman on Foreign Affairs (who modesty will not permit us to name) publicly challenged the Government to state a position. International leadership was critical to ensuring the new Hamas administration understood the rules of the game.

The weak, late afternoon response from the Foreign Minister made it very clear who was calling the shots. New Zealand was not about to suspend government to government relations, or threaten to withhold future cash, pending the adoption by the Palestinians of the internationally dictated bottom lines. Mr Peters merely warned that Hamas would be "judged by its actions" because "the recent election result reflected the will of the Palestinian people and must be respected." In other words, Mr Peters had been told the Sisterhood was retaining its pro-Palestine position, and that the adoption of such a position on his part would be highly desirable from a bauble-retention perspective.

Mr Peters has previously provided glimpses of some insight into Middle Eastern Affairs. Previous comments have reflected a conservative mainstream view of the Israel/Palestine conflict, somewhat removed from pro-Palestine position of the Labour Cabinet. And this week he had the opportunity to join other moderate voices, signalling to Hamas the absolute importance of moving to meet international expectations. What a pity he instead allowed his colleagues and officials to persuade him to adopt a position on our behalf that was so weak as to be utterly meaningless.

Confusion Over $500,000 Palestinian Grant

Mr Peters reluctant foray into the Palestinian situation was not his first excursion into the issue. He had earlier caused confusion over a $500,000 grant to the Palestinian Authority. In a press release on the 8th of March Mr Peters announced the grant as "a tangible demonstration of New Zealand’s commitment to improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians living in poverty." Sensitive to potential criticism, the release noted that "accountability mechanisms are built into this funding," and that "consideration would be given to whether or not any further support was appropriate" once a Hamas-led government was in place.

The pointy-headed analysts at the worldwide headquarters of were confused. What a strange time (soon after the Hamas victory) to choose to award a $500,000 grant. And what message could Mr Peters possibly be attempting to send in announcing it. Most importantly, was it the conspiracy theory or the cock-up theory at work here?

The answers to the Parliamentary questions were truly revealing. And confirmed that it was indeed the cock-up theory at work here. First, Mr Peters responded that the decision to award the grant had not been made by Cabinet. It had been made under delegated authority by the Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs. And said Mr Peters, he had not received any reports or advice in relation to the grant "as the decision was made on 3 August 2005 prior to my appointment."

So let’s get this straight: Mr Peters released a press statement on the 8th of March, after the election of a Hamas-led government, announcing a $500,000 grant, sending all sorts of strange signals about New Zealand’s position on Palestine, when the decision to award the grant had been made by Marian Hobbs (who is no longer a Minister) on 3 August last year, prior to the last election, when even the worldwide headquarters will concede Mr Peters really wasn’t part of the government. The cash had, incidentally, been handed over last November, four months before Mr Peters press announcement. How very very strange.

Read it First Winston

The obvious question posed by the above little tale of course is whether Mr Peters reads his own press statements before they are released. Or indeed, the reports provided by his officials. On the evidence provided this week, when Mr Peters released the Review of NZAID, he reads neither.

To read Mr Peters press release, NZAID, the Government’s international aid agency, dispensing a budget of $345 million each year, is one highly professional, very classy organisation.

"NZAID has made excellent progress developing an aid programme that New Zealanders can be proud of," trumpeted Mr Peters. "New Zealand’s role in the global effort to reduce poverty is in good hands," he said, and "everyone involved with NZAID should be very proud of the findings of this review."

So you can just imagine the head-scratching and general puzzlement which ensued at the worldwide headquarters when the actual review – undertaken by Dr Marilyn Waring – arrived. Get a taste of this:

"The number of core bilateral programmes and the dispersal of ODA to more than 100 countries spreads the resources of both ODA and NZAID too thinly."

"NZAID’s effectiveness in the Pacific region is inhibited by the lack of coherent strategy covering all New Zealand Government agencies operating in the region."

"The reviewer encountered lack of co-ordination and response of sensitive and serious issues on several occasions in respect of practices and monitoring that were the responsibility of the NZ Government Agency charged with leadership for a NZ Inc Pacific Strategy. This would be of considerable concern if it is not immediately addressed."

"NZAID should, as a matter of priority, reassess the number, spread and focus of its bilateral programme to ensure they become focused on achieving the strategic framework determined by Cabinet Minute (01) 28/8."

Get the picture. Hardly the ringing endorsement touted by Mr Peters – which is just the sort of thing that happens when you don’t read your press releases or officials reports before you release them to the unsuspecting public.


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