The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Winston Peters
On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Foreign
Affairs Minister Winston Peters
Lisa Owen: US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will soon sit down for talks together despite months of provocative tweets and comments that had the region and the world on edge, but will anything come out of these talks? Foreign Minister Winston Peters joins me now. Good morning, Minister.
Winston Peters: Good morning.
How significant do you think these talks are?
Well, it doesn’t get any more raw or real or important than this engagement that’s coming up. It’s seriously important, critically important for whole lot of reasons but above all for the survival of humanity.
So North Korea, as you know, doesn’t have a good track record for keeping promises, and I saw your press release that said you welcome the indication of talks.
How likely do you think it is that the meeting’s going to go ahead? And what would you like to see come of it?
Well, I think a lot of the things that have been happening have led to this moment and that the appearance of the North Koreans in the Olympic Winter Games was not by accident. I think also that China has played, behind the scenes, a more critical role than they have in the past, and all of this has led to this potential outcome now. One should not get carried away or rush to a judgement or get over-optimistic, but at least it represents an avenue for hope.
What role has China been playing?
I think that if they have been doing what the West and other parts of the world have been asking them to do, they’ve made it very clear to the North Koreans that this cannot go on.
You have previously called for maximum pressure to be applied to North Korea, and I’m wondering — what would you need to see to feel comfortable with UN sanctions being eased?
A verifiable denuclearisation programme that we can have absolute confidence in, but, yeah, the added thing that I’ve always said is that to make this possible, a number of countries — including our own — need to step up and all around the region and assist North Korea to a different economic outcome so that they can be comfortable in where they go in the future. We are dealing with something, a different regime that is very rare in this world, it has very few parallels, but we have to give them a way out.
So, you met recently with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other diplomats. What role did those talks have to do with what’s happening now?
I think they’re very important, because we were of a very clear mind that getting promises or having recriminative statements as part of the diplomatic choreography is just a waste of our time. We needed to be now or never. We needed to make it very clear to the North Koreans that we’re here to help; we’re prepared to go down the pathway of change and a decisive and very sound economic future for them, but they have to give up this pathway of nuclearisation.
When you say you’re here to help, how much help are you prepared to give? Would you go along for those meetings? Have you been asked? Have you offered?
Well, I’ve been to meetings there in the past, and I can’t say any more about that other than to say if I was to ask New Zealanders whether the opportunity for a better future in terms of nuclear or non-nuclear was our part of the regional future and, indeed, the worldwide future, I think they’d be prepared to make a supportive statement and help out as well. But if a whole lot of countries join in to turn this result around, then it will not be all that expensive, but it’ll be so progressive for our region and, indeed, East Asia and, in fact, all the world.
Have you offered your services?
No, I don’t go round offering my services like that. I’m happy to serve in any capacity that I’m asked to serve in.
I just wonder — do you think that President Trump is the person to make this happen?
Look, I’m not going to be commenting on that. The person that I have engaged with is Rex Tillerson and General Mattis and others in that context. But put aside—
Yeah, but President Trump is having the meeting, isn’t he? Do you think he’s up to it?
Put aside all that. If you go back over what happened over the last nine years since we were last trying to engage Korea, then this is a potentially decisively different moment. So I’m not going to, you know, pour cold water on what looks like potential success.
Is he up to the job?
Again, I’m not going to engage in that sort of conversation. What I’m interested in is the outcome,…
…not making political points on The Nation at this time of the year.
Well, President Trump has actually been very busy this week. He’s also signed off on some significant tariffs on the steel and aluminium industries, and the EU has indicated that there’s going to be some kind of retaliation. How worried should we be that New Zealand is going to get caught in the crossfire of all of this?
Well, I mean, people forget that over 20 years ago — in fact, about 1999 — Clinton was applying tariffs against our NZ steel, and these were very, very significant. Now, that was a different administration. So the precedent is already there, but I think we’ve got a potential and a chance to get ourselves exempt from it.
Have you requested an exemption?
Well, I’m not the Minister of Finance; you’ll have to ask Grant Robertson that.
Are you aware of whether we’ve requested an exemption?
Well, again, I’ve been offshore; I’m not aware we have or not, but frankly, I would’ve thought we had a chance with being seriously exempted…
…in the way that I saw recently the Canadians had been.
Yes, but that’s in respect of steel and aluminium. What if there’s an ongoing tit for tat? Do you have any concerns for dairy? Because the Special Agricultural Trade Envoy, Mike Petersen, says, you know, he is worried.
Look, what’s Donald Trump’s biggest complaint? It’s that the countries that are shouting out free trade for America don’t take this free trade themselves. In fact, that’s New Zealand First and my complaint — that the countries that we deal with apply tariffs against us whilst we’ve given them total unfettered, free access to our country. It’s simply not fair. In that context, there’s something similar being said here, and it’s not Luddite; it’s not old-fashioned.
So you have some sympathy.
It happens to be an economic fact, which some propagators of the free market tenets should actually face up and describe why it’s not fair for Donald Trump to do what he’s doing. Now, that said, we believe in free trade, but we believe in fair trade and even-handed trade for the advantage of the maximum majority of people on this Earth. And I can see that we have got a similar and very sound argument to put to Donald Trump, in fact, a very compelling one as to why he should exempt us.
The EU is not in the same boat when it comes to that.
Okay. So you have some sympathy for his view, then, given your position, New Zealand First—
Well, I have a great deal of sympathy for what I call even-handed fairness. Why should the EU be screaming blue murder about that when what’s our barrier when we go to the EU? It’s always massive agricultural subsidies to protect theirs against open access from our country.
Okay, well, you bring up the EU, and, obviously, we’re looking for a trade deal there, but the New Zealand First coalition agreement with Labour includes an obligation to explore a free-trade deal with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. How serious are you about that? And why do you think it’s a good idea?
Well, we’re deadly serious about it, and I’ll tell you why — we had, for years, Tim Groser and the National Party boasting about the free trade deal they were doing with Russia, and we were doing deals with Russia when they were a communist nation. Then all of a sudden on the golf course of Hawaii, the whole thing collapsed. Why would that be? And the EU, who thanked us for what we did, then started attacking our agricultural markets. Let’s be honest here — we’re going to go into these conversations from here on in with our eyes wide open as to the facts and not pulling our punches. We might get a fairer deal that way.
Okay, well, you’d be aware that there are sanctions, obviously, currently against Russia. Wouldn’t it be a diplomatic faux pas to be sidling up for a free-trade deal?
Now, what’s extraordinary about that statement is that the UK right now has 5 billion-plus dealings with Russia. So how come they can argue that, and the rest of the surviving EU argue their case, whilst poor old New Zealand suffers massively, and the EU, despite our doing our bit for the embargo that they had asked us to follow, then starts aggressively attacking us in our own existing dairy markets? So we’re an all-round loser, and all I’m saying is some of your leaders in the past should’ve been more honest as to what they were not doing and why they were not doing it.
Okay, well the biggest prize would be a deal with the EU. I mean, trade there is about $19.6 billion in two-way trade in 2016. $762 million two-way trade with Russia — tiny by comparison.
It’s not either/or; it’s doing a trade deal with everyone we possibly can.
It could be an either/or, though, couldn’t it, Minister? Because the EU has expressed concerns about the fact we could be looking at that kind of deal. So it might be an either/or. It might stand in the way.
Well, it might not either when somebody point out, ‘But hang on; we know your level of trade between, for example, Germany and Russia. We know your level of trade between the UK and Russia, or France and Russia.’ So let’s have— what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the New Zealand gander.
Okay. Well, then based on your own standards — you know a Russian missile downed a passenger jet, 283 civilians killed over the Ukraine. They have basically taken over Crimea; they’re meddling in the Ukraine, and it’s confirmed they were meddling in the US elections as well. Do you not worry about any of that when you’re considering a deal?
I worry about all international circumstances in which human life is put at risk.
But do you not think that precludes—?
But I do not have all the facts. We have a lot of allegations, but we do not have the facts laid out clearly. Once you start talking about those sorts of moral judgements—
An international report confirmed—
When you’re talking about those sorts of moral judgements, you might not be trading with anybody very quickly. Most countries don’t survive — well, a lot of countries that we’re dealing with would not survive a serious human-rights issue or gender-equality issue or an ethnic-issue debate. Now, we still trade with them.
You have said— I want to read a quote to you. ‘Our relations need to retain New Zealand’s traditional values of human rights, the rule of law, transparency, good government and the promotion of democracy.’ So you’ll recognise that, because you said it.
Yeah, I know.
So how does that apply when you’re talking about doing a deal with Russia — a free-trade deal with countries that have terrible human rights records, terrible labour records?
Let me tell you about how it applies, and I think it was very clear when I made my opening statement. It apparently applies to a whole lot of EU countries and the UK right now, for they are seriously trading with Russia. I heard Boris Johnson, a person I’ve got some time for, boasting about their over $5 billion trading with Russia.
So we’re being held to different standards, you think, Minister.
Well, precisely. No, no, we’re running around here —rather naively, by my say-so — without knowing the full facts that might advantage our case. And besides, Kazakhstan is a seriously rising country; it’s got a lot of opportunities for us there, and so have the rest. It’s not just Russia, it’s—
So you’re going to ignore the EU’s views on it, then.
I’m not saying I’m ignoring the EU’s views on it. I’m taking into account their actual practical behaviour, because if their views and their behaviour were to match and they were the same thing, then we could follow it. But they don’t. What they say is not what they do.
But your own standards suggest that there should be an issue with negotiating this deal — the standards that you’ve laid out about emphasising human rights, the rule of law, transparency, good government. I say again — Ukraine, Crimea and blowing a passenger jet out of the sky.
Well, those are the allegations that you say.
No, that’s an international report that confirmed the missile that hit that jet was of Russian origins and had been passed over the border to rebels.
Well, right, then, see, you’ve got a problem, because you’re saying the person that set that missile off was doing it at the direction of the Russians. Big problem — your argument legally collapses right there, because you’ve got no evidence of that. It was a former Russian missile, yes, true. But who was responsible for setting it off?
It’s not for us to litigate. It was an international investigation that—
Your point was going fine until you said that the origins are the substantive—the guilty party associated—
How do you deal with that stuff? Or do you just ignore it? Do you just ignore it? Or do you go ahead with the deal, ignoring those things?
I’m not just sliding by your allegations, because you’ve actually failed to make the case out.
Well, like I say, international report found that, not me. So you are happy to put those things to one side?
They didn’t find what you said they found — that the instigator of that atrocity was working at the behest of the Russian government.
All right. Well, let me put it another way, Minister. Let me put it another way. Do you not see any barriers in Russia’s record to going ahead with a free trade deal?
Look, I see barriers in dealing with a lot of countries that are near New Zealand now.
Well, deportation of New Zealanders from Australia is a serious barrier. We don’t like it; we know someone was sent back here who’d never lived here and was caught by a ‘Barnaby Joyce in reverse’ complex of having a New-Zealand-passport father. Now, this is wrong, but we trade with Australia, and we carry on, because we hope one day to vastly improve the circumstance. And I believe it’s possible. So don’t put up barriers, because otherwise, we’d be not trading with anybody.
So you’re saying sign up, but express your views, and campaign from a closer relationship.
Look, I don’t care if we’re trading with Tokelau or China — the biggest country in the world. We should treat them as equals, and we expect them to treat us as equals.
OK, let’s move on to the so-called ‘waka jumping’ legislation. That’s going to need the support of the Green Party to get it over the line. Do you think that the Greens’ confidence-and-supply agreement means that they have to support it? Is that your reading of the situation?
The confidence-and-supply agreement is with the Labour Party, not with the coalition government of Labour-New Zealand First. Just with the Labour Party, which is part of the coalition, albeit the biggest part of it. But the second thing is, I believe—
Regardless, do you believe that it obliges them to vote for that piece of legislation?
Well, the Greens have a constitutional schism of a huge capacity to ensure that it’s the choice of the mass majority of their members. There are protections for them in this legislation. But if people think that jumping the waka or jumping out of the boat when you feel like it is democratic in an MMP environment, then they don’t know democracy.
But you need them to get it over the line. Are they going to support it?
I do need them to make it over the line. Let me tell you, I’m somebody — probably one of the rarest people in this country; since 1954, nobody had ever walked out of Parliament and resigned on a matter of principle, but I did. So I’m not asking anyone to do what I didn’t do. So I didn’t just walk out and make my own party; I walked out and gave up a whole lot of things, including about one-third of my retirement entitlements to start a party on a matter of principle. Just please don’t just slide past that, because it’s OK for you in your comfortable well-paid existence; I understand that. But you don’t know what it’s like to walk off for seven weeks, to have a whole organisation dependent upon you whilst you’re trying to fund a very unnecessary by-election forced by a matter of principle.
That’s your personal story; I appreciate that. Do you think you’re going to get this legislation over the line?
Yes, I do.
So the Greens, you think, are going to support it.
Well, I think if the people in National Party have any sense of democracy and what MMP’s about and the need to keep faith with what the election-night result is, then they themselves will vote for it.
But people say it’s anti-democratic, that it’s just an insurance policy for you.
Well, if you are in these sort of— if you’re part of the… unreconstructed morons collective making those sorts of personal arguments, that’s fine for you to say, but it’s not true.
My bona fides is I resigned from Parliament. What’s there for them to make that allegation?
All right, let’s move on. You’ll be the Prime Minister for a few weeks shortly — quite a few weeks. How closely will you be consulting with Jacinda Ardern during that time? You know, at what level will you consult with her around decision-making?
Well, I know that the media and a lot of commentators will not give her peace of time, but she would have a rather bigger priority at that point in time, and I’m certain she can have confidence in her ministers, including me, to ensure that the country runs properly.
So will you consult her on all decisions, only big ones or at what level?
Well, I mean—
What do you think?
The reason why I’m taking over for the time being the job of being Prime Minister is to make those decisions, based on what? The coalition agreement, fundamental understandings of principle; it should not be any way difficult. I want to assure my media friends that this is something I have done over 22 years ago; this is not going to be a problem.
Kelvin Davis, he’ll be deputy, will he, Deputy Prime Minister? You happy with that?
Well, take a wild guess. He’s number two in the Labour Party now, so if he’s number two there, take a wild guess – he’ll be the deputy, yes.
All right. Thank you very much for joining us this morning, Minister.
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