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Q+A: Simon Bridges talks trade, foreign policy and Te Reo

PR: New National leader Simon Bridges is interviewed by Q+A’s Corin Dann

New National leader Simon Bridges talks trade, foreign policy and Te Reo with Q+A’s Corin Dann:

Q + A
Episode 1
Interviewed by Corin Dann

CORIN Good morning to you. Some big shoes to fill.

SIMON Morning. Absolutely. Very big shoes to fill and I think a remarkable valedictory speech. I don’t think I’ve been in a speech that long in Parliament, actually. I’ve certainly been in some that felt that long, but I think every minute of it was witty, funny, but also quite moving.

CORIN All right, I want to start with foreign policy because Winston Peters has been talking this morning about this reset in the Pacific. How significant is it, from your perspective having been in Government? Do you feel like he’s changing tack, particularly with the relationship with China?

SIMON In relation to the Pacific, I don’t, actually. I think if you look at what Murray McCully did, we very much significantly pivoted in there and with aid and we significantly increased it. I think the China material and what he was saying there is much more interesting. I think, firstly, what you’d say generally, if you look at what both the Prime Minister has said on foreign affairs and Winston Peters, actually, they haven’t talked much about wider Asia. In fact, really not at all to date publicly. And I think if that was to continue, that would be a worry because this is the most dynamic, exciting, vital part of the world and certainly is for us. I think the other thing I’d say about what he was saying is if it continues and – if I can say this – if he means what he says, it’s potentially quite a significant shift. I can tell you--

CORIN In what sense?

SIMON Well, I signed the Belt and Road document for New Zealand--

CORIN He says you were too fast.

SIMON And I think, actually, that was about the opportunities. You say too fast, but remember our history with China in the recent past. We’ve been the party in the government of firsts. First FTA under Labour, actually, and so on and so forth. I’ll just make this point. That’s taken us from $8 billion, $9 billion, as you say, over the last decade in two-way trade to $26 billion, $27 billion. So this is not to say at any level don’t raise human rights, don’t raise rule of law, don’t raise democracy. But I think it’s the tone in which you do it, and I do think he seems to be ramping that up, and I wouldn’t agree with that tone.

CORIN Give me an example of what the Belt and Road means?

SIMON Well, it means economic opportunity, and what do I mean by that? Infrastructure. You’re seeing China invest significantly in infrastructure around the world--

CORIN Building other people’s ports. Do they come to New Zealand and build a port here?

SIMON Well, Winston had his facts entirely wrong on that. He said in relation to the roads to Northland that this was something funded, done by Chinese. Rubbish. I was the minister involved in this. The biggest player in that is a Spanish company called Acciona. So I don’t think we have any fears about that in New Zealand. We have good procurement rules. We do that very well.

CORIN Isn’t this about balance here? Look, the balance has been very economic with China to New Zealand’s huge advantage. $26 billion in two-way trade. Isn’t perhaps what Winston is doing is signalling that maybe that balance has gone a little bit too far and we need to pull it back? What’s wrong with that? We’re always going to have the balance between them and the United States alliances and those types of issues.

SIMON If that’s all he’s doing, maybe you’re right. But I do worry if you look at foreign policy in this country since the government’s changed, you’ve seen a candid approach to Manus Island – actually inflaming that, making the Australians very angry about that. That’s a fact. I wouldn’t want to see that sort of approach leach out into Asia, given the relationship there. As I say, I don’t have any issue with raising important issues. We must do that. It’s our responsibility. But it is how you do it.

CORIN Let’s just quickly before we move on from foreign policy – so your take as National Party Leader, the National Party continues its course in terms of the relationship with the US and everyone else? No change?

SIMON No, but what I would say on what’s happened in the last few days is if you look at New Zealand’s story from our perspective, we’ve been a big beneficiary of free trade. We’ve gone from tariffs and subsidies Bill English talked about in his valedictory speech to one of the most open small economies and successful small economies in the world. So I do think--

CORIN So you’d be on the phone to Donald Trump?

SIMON Well, I do think it’s a bit like what we’ve just been talking about with China. I do think you need to raise these issues through the WTO and other international forums with America. We are resolutely pro free-trade because it works for New Zealand and we--

CORIN Would you go as far as retaliating to Donald Trump’s talk of trade wars and tariffs?

SIMON No, because I don’t think that works for New Zealand. Our economy is a versatile little cork bobbing on the ocean, and we succeed through international forums pushing our case of free trade.

CORIN We got a few questions through from viewers. If I can paraphrase some of them. The first one was around Maori wards on councils. There is an issue floating around here about the ability of people to hold a referendum and remove Maori wards from councils, and I think there are a number of referenda.

SIMON There are.

CORIN What is your position on that?

SIMON Ultimately it’s for councils. You obviously see in me a Maori New Zealander who feels, in a sense, that I pulled myself up from my own bootstraps. I stood in a general seat, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that--

CORIN It’s not for councils if there’s a referendum available.

SIMON Well, it is ultimately, because there’s a council process where they can do this, but if enough signatures are obtained, you have a referendum on that. I think that’s right – local communities speaking out on this issue as they see fit.

CORIN Another one that kept cropping up was your position on gay marriage. You voted against it. The question was why did you vote against it. Not that you might have changed now. Why did you vote against it at the time?

SIMON Very simply because I thought civil unions were working well and I saw marriage primarily as not a legal institution that was there in civil unions but a religious one. But I accept New Zealand’s moved on and so have I.

CORIN Te reo – you’ve talked yourself in interviews before that you don’t speak the reo prolifically.

SIMON That’s right.

CORIN But do you think governments have an obligation to do more?

SIMON I think we have an obligation, actually, under the Treaty of Waitangi fundamentally to make it available, to encourage it. You see that in our schools. I mean, my children are more proficient than I am, and that’s just going through a normal school in New Zealand. So I certainly encourage that. I don’t think, though, the next step is right and that is in terms of compulsion and these sort of things because I think, actually, that would be the reverse of what we saw and what was terrible 100-odd years ago where people weren’t allowed to speak it.

CORIN What did you make of Bill English? A couple of weeks back now he said that te reo wasn’t his language, wasn’t our language.

SIMON I think fundamentally he was making the point that I’m just making, which is quite simply that yes, encourage it; yes, it’s important, but people have to want to do it, and I don’t think compulsion is the right way to go.

CORIN It’s one of our official languages, though, so what do you think?

SIMON Yeah, that’s exactly what I think.

CORIN But is it our language, your language? It’s interesting because the language he used to describe it was a bit odd, wasn’t it?

SIMON Well, possibly. But I think what he was trying to say and what I agree with is that yes, encourage it by all means. Do we compel it? No, I think that’s the wrong way to go.

CORIN You’ve said the economy is your top priority. Why is that? The economy is going well. There isn’t actually that much to suggest it’s going to fall off a cliff in a hurry.


CORIN Surely your focus needs to be winning the battlegrounds in poverty and inequality and showing that you can do it differently to Labour on that stuff.

SIMON They’re incredibly important. Let’s be clear about that. Effective social policy that works is vital. But what’s also true, I think, is a couple of things in relation to the economy. Firstly, an understanding that that’s what creates opportunities for New Zealand. Fundamentally that they don’t leave New Zealand and go overseas to Australia--

CORIN But why don’t we understand that? We understand that.

SIMON Well, I would argue what we’ve got right now is a government that takes that for granted, and you see that in the policies they implement.

CORIN Well, yes--

SIMON Immigration law, in relation to employment laws, in relation to overseas investment. That’s all fine, but actually what that means is--

CORIN But they’ve actually watered those down. They’ve haven’t done it. That’s the point. They aren’t pushing hard on immigration, and they’ve watered down the employment stuff, so they do recognise that.

SIMON Well, let’s see where they go. But my simple point is this: that’s fine. You take the top off growth, but if you want an exciting, dynamic place to live where there’s the very best opportunities for New Zealanders, I think there’s better pro-growth policies, the National Party believes in that.

CORIN A couple of quick questions to finish with. Our troop deployment to Taji in Iraq. Would you roll that over?

SIMON I don’t have enough material in terms of briefing to know absolutely, but my instinct would be if they’re making a useful contribution and that’s going well, then we should. And I think that’s where they’ll arrive, the government, as well.

CORIN The 60 Minutes interview with Jacinda Ardern. Winston Peters thought it was all a bit PC. What do you think?

SIMON Genuinely I didn’t see that, but can I say this--

CORIN What, you mean you didn’t see the interview?

SIMON No, I didn’t see it.

CORIN Not even the media commentary of it?

SIMON I’ve seen some of the commentary. My point’s pretty simple. Do leaders, such as myself, have a responsibility to be judicious in how we say things so we’re not offending? Yeah, I think that’s right. But is it also true that we shouldn’t have topics that are off-conversation and not allowed to be the conversation in New Zealand? No, I don’t think we should go that far. And I think we are seeing a bit of that creep into the discourse, if you want to put it that way, in New Zealand. And in that regard, I agree with Winston Peters.

CORIN Simon Bridges, thank you very much for your time.

SIMON Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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