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Peters: Public participation in foreign policy

Rt Hon Winston Peters
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Embargoed until 7pm, 20 June 2008

Speech Notes

Public participation in foreign policy making
Speech to Otago Foreign Policy School
Salmond College, Knox Street, Dunedin
7.00pm, 20 June 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be back in Dunedin at the opening of the Otago Foreign Policy School, now in its 43rd year.

The organisers have once again assembled a diverse range of distinguished speakers from New Zealand and abroad.

Welcome to what promises to be a rich debate.

Diplomacy may be the second oldest profession, but the concept of the public having a hand in making foreign policy is a very modern one.

Until recently foreign policy was the jealously guarded prerogative of diplomats and their political masters.

The idea of telling the public what they were up to, let alone seeking their advice, would not have crossed the minds of Talleyrand, Chateaubriand, or von Bismarck.

Even the founders of the New Zealand foreign service, Alastair McIntosh and Carl Berendsen, would barely have looked beyond Parliament Buildings for foreign policy advice when the Department of External Affairs was first established 65 years ago.

It was McIntosh who coined the famous phrase “an eye, an ear, and a voice” to define what our foreign service does.

However, the “ear” was not to listen to the New Zealand public – but to the messages from offshore partners. Diplomacy in those days was something practiced in private, between governments.

These days the situation is very different.

The government’s principal adviser on foreign and trade policy issues is still the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

But modern, open government means that business, think tanks, academics, non-government organisations and the media have an increasingly influential role.

These stakeholders expect to be involved in developing advice for government. If they feel left out they will approach Ministers directly to register their concerns.

The government acknowledges the importance of public consultation.

We want New Zealanders to know more about our external environment, and we want them to contribute their views on the direction of New Zealand’s foreign and development policy.

We need to secure the widest possible ownership of initiatives or policy positions by civil society, NGOs, and other specific interest groups through consultative processes.

But what does this mean in practice? How has better engagement with the wider community helped the government represent New Zealand’s unique identity and values to the wider world?

We need only look back ten years when negotiations on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment foundered.

This happened in part because they were perceived as being undertaken in secret, without due regard to the New Zealand public's concerns about environment, labour, human rights and Treaty of Waitangi implications.

We were the first country to make the draft Agreement - and our reservations about it - public.

This episode led to new parliamentary procedures whereby international treaties are tabled in the House, debated, subject to a public National Interest Analysis, and scrutinised by a select committee prior to their ratification.

This is not the only way the public’s right to participate in foreign policymaking has improved.

New Zealand’s Nuclear Free Zone Act – a defining point in our status as a principled and independent country – codified public abhorrence of nuclear weapons.

The public’s ongoing right to have their say is formalised in the Act, which establishes a Public Advisory Committee to provide advice on disarmament and arms control to the Minister and Prime Minister.

New Zealanders’ future economic well-being is dependent on our international connections.

Right across the trade agenda, both multilateral and bilateral, public and stakeholder participation is now seen as a critical part of our negotiation strategy.

At all points of negotiations, whether it is during the exploratory sessions, in the lead up to successive negotiating rounds or during the critical implementation phase, stakeholder views are actively sought.

At the end of the day, our negotiators represent all New Zealanders, and reflect not just the views of Ministers but of businesses, NGOs and the general public.

Environmental and climate change issues also matter to New Zealanders, and the government’s approach to international negotiations is no less inclusive.

That’s why we appointed a Climate Change Ambassador.

The Ambassador is responsible for working with different sectors and interest groups to ensure that their ambitions and concerns feed into the policy making process.

It was also to ensure that the implications of the positions the government takes in the negotiations are properly understood.

Equally, the government is involved in developing international frameworks around bio-prospecting and protection of biological diversity.

We do that in partnership with Maori organisations, science and research agencies, environmental groups, and local government.

Multi-stakeholder working groups ensure that all of these organisations have the opportunity to have an input into our international deliberations.

Consultation with Maori is a special focus, not just on traditional knowledge issues, but also to identify international opportunities for Maori development.

Maori business leaders meet regularly with Ministers, with our trade negotiators, and with our Ambassadors.

More and more consultation is now taking place through electronic channels but experience suggests face-to-face opportunities for consultation produce the best results.

NZAID, our aid and development agency, has put this into practice in formulating the government’s Pacific Development Strategy, which will be launched next week.

Targeted consultation took place around the Pacific and New Zealand with Pacific partner governments and civil society, domestic development stakeholders, New Zealand government agencies and Pacific communities in New Zealand.

Eight meetings with local communities were exceptionally well-attended, with 300 people attending the Tonga community meeting in Auckland.

As well as informing and refining the strategy process, these consultation opportunities presented an excellent opportunity for building relationships and connections which will be important for years to come.

As already mentioned, there is select committee scrutiny of proposed international agreements.

In addition, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee regularly reviews New Zealand’s foreign policy settings, and does so in an open and transparent way, by seeking public submissions and holding hearings open to the media and public.

More than fifty submissions have been received on the current Pacific review, from parties as diverse as the Drug Foundation, TVNZ, Tagata Pasifika, and the Fiji Community Association of Auckland.

All submissions are carefully considered by the Committee, with many being presented in person by representatives of the organisation concerned, and they are debated vigorously.

We policy-makers on the Committee are left in no doubt about the public’s views.

Media coverage of select committee hearings is only one way in which it plays a role in influencing foreign policy. But that influence is huge, given media’s ability to stir up public sentiment.

All of us agree there is a role for responsible media in explaining policy and providing public feedback. Sadly though, there are too many who cannot see beyond the next headline, and for whom policy is no substitute for publicity.

Among formal mechanisms for ensuring public participation are the Cabinet-agreed guidelines for including non-official representatives in New Zealand delegations to international meetings.

This acknowledges the value they can bring, through breadth and specialist knowledge.

That doesn’t give them licence to pursue their personal agendas or to breach confidentiality in ways that undermine our national interest. But it does offer an unprecedented opportunity for NGOs to participate in international negotiations and to bring their perspective to issues in a manner that can have real impact.

Recent examples include Oxfam's participation in our Bali Climate Change delegation, and the World Wildlife Fund and Ecowatch in our delegation to the Antarctica Marine Living Resources meeting in Hobart.

Modern technology can also give individuals a voice. The Parliament website at enables anyone to email Ministers directly with their views in a way that wouldn't have happened even five years ago.

And don’t underestimate the role that well-argued, non-combative emails or letters to Ministers can play.

I say “well argued” to make the point that Ministers respond to questions and comments from individuals who are sufficiently concerned about an issue to take the trouble to write.

We are often less impressed or influenced by campaigns which encourage form letters or form emails to be sent en masse to Ministerial offices.

Modern communications and communication technology can hugely impact upon the conduct of international affairs. It is possible to reach citizens in other countries more directly today than at any time in history.

If a small country seeks to have its voice heard on a matter of great importance to its interests, it can - and should - go beyond the direct articulation of its concerns to the government of the other country.

It should also press its case publicly. This may be appropriate when it believes that the media is not accurately reflecting its concerns, or where the press is heavily controlled.

This is the concept of "public diplomacy" and it is a capability which is being developed in New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

New technologies offer web logs and "wiki" pages as a way of sharing views on policy issues. British Foreign Secretary David Millibrand has led the charge into “blog” territory; but I’ll leave that to a Foreign Minister of the next generation!

In this generation however New Zealand has carved for itself an enviable foreign policy record. We have done it on many fronts – disarmament, the WTO, the Commonwealth, environment, human rights and indigenous issues.

Whether our government's positions have been principled, or pragmatic, they have been taken in the confidence that the public is behind them. In a small country like ours you cannot get away with anything less.

Our government offers the public, both individuals and special interest groups, many opportunities to have their say as foreign policies are being developed.

Our domestic consultation processes have helped us “box above our weight” on the international stage. This is a trend that will continue – and which this government welcomes.

Ministers dislike surprises. The last thing we need is a carefully crafted piece of policy advice which fails to get traction because members of the public who have a stake in it were not consulted.

Ministry officials know this – and if they forget, they can expect to be reminded by people like yourselves.

This seminar is itself a reminder of the increasingly inclusive nature of foreign policy formulation.

May the junior MFAT staff here, the class of 2008, take careful note.

Thank you to the Otago Foreign Policy School for choosing such a topical subject for this year’s debate.

Best wishes as you explore this multi-faceted area over the next two days.

Thank you.


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