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The Nation: British High Commissioner Laura Clarke

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews British High Commissioner Laura Clarke

Nearly three and a half years since the Brexit referendum and still no Brexit.

But British MPs this week backed Boris Johnson's call for a UK general election in December.

Will it break the deadlock?

The UK's representative in New Zealand is British High Commissioner Laura Clarke.

This is her last opportunity to talk about British politics until after the election on December 12.

Simon Shepherd began by asking her why that is.

LAURA CLARKE: Parliament has agreed to hold elections on the 12th of December of this year, and so we soon go into purdah, which means everyone has to keep quite low-key, in media terms, and not do anything that could be construed as interfering in that election or trying to influence it in any way.

SIMON SHEPHERD: And so you can’t really tell us what you think the likely scenarios are, then?

I don’t think I’m going to– I’ve long given up trying to predict what’s going to happen in British politics. But, essentially, the reason there’s an election is, as you know, we’re going through this period of massive constitutional change in terms of our relationship with the EU, and the parliamentary arithmetic has been such that it’s been really hard to reach consensus on exactly how you implement Brexit. And so now, you know, after a few years, it’s been decided to have an election to see if that parliamentary arithmetic can be changed; and the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has agreed with the EU, so that that can then be ratified, and then we can all move on.

If we look back a bit, you’ve been reported saying you didn’t originally want Brexit. Why didn’t you?

Well, we all had our own vote, and, you know, we all voted according to what we felt, but I think the important thing now is getting on the– You know, the result of the referendum was very clear, and the important thing now is to make that happen and to find a resolution in a way that a) delivers on the result of the referendum, but also then enables the best possible relationship with our EU friends and partners going forward, and I think that there’s a real consensus now that the best thing to do is to find a resolution so that we can then build, going forward. And for me, the joy of my job is I have to look at, ‘Well, what next in terms of the UK/New Zealand relationship? What next in terms of the UK in the Pacific?’ And there’s a really exciting agenda there.

What is next? Because it’s also still very uncertain that you have– You don’t have a roadmap to work to still, so what can be next?

So, I think, for now, we’re going to have to wait to see what the result is of the election, and I obviously don’t want to speculate on that, but then a new Government will form, and then a way forward will be charted on Brexit. And then, for UK/New Zealand, the important thing then is, post-Brexit, there’s that possibility of a post-Brexit UK/New Zealand free trade agreement, which we see as an opportunity to really set the standard in terms of the UK’s future independent trade policy and really do something very high-quality, high-ambition there.

Right. Our two prime ministers announced that shared goal when they were in New York in September. Do you have any idea what that will look like?

We really want– I think Prime Minister Ardern talked about doing a gold standard free trade agreement. And that’s really important for us – that we get out there and we say, ‘Actually, we need a trade policy that aligns with all our objectives and that is a force for good in the world.’

Do you have to be aggressive in terms of your marketing of the UK now? Because you are possibly – or probably – going to be not part of Europe, and so you have to be, yeah, a lot more aggressive?

Well, I think the UK– My job is always to represent the UK – to represent all four countries in the UK, business of the UK, do our best to promote that and build connections, build cooperation, build trading and investment links between our countries. That’s always the job of a British High Commissioner – wherever, in whatever context. But, yeah, it will be a new world for us. We will be building the best possible trading relationship with our EU friends and partners; we’ll also be looking for opportunities elsewhere.

You said you want the interests of Māoridom embedded in that particular free trade agreement. I mean, what does that mean?

Well, I think it’s really important that you look and see what the interests are across the board, and I’ve got a particularly high place, a high priority, on building the UK’s relationship with Te Ao Māori, with Māoridom, across New Zealand, across the board. So, that’s about trading links, cultural links, people-to-people links. And of course, in any trade agreement, Māori are an important stakeholder. Māori business is very important in New Zealand, so it’s really about exploring what we can do both now, in terms of two-way trade and investment between the UK and New Zealand – so under current arrangements, and that’s why recently I spoke at the Federation of Māori Authorities Conference – but also then what we might be able to do together in a free trade agreement. And that is also, of course, a priority for the New Zealand government, to make sure–

What does that look like in practical terms? Will there be specific clauses in the FTA in terms of dealing with Māoridom? I’m just trying to understand how that would actually work.

So, New Zealand and its Trade For All policy is very clear that it needs to take into account indigenous interests and Treaty of Waitangi interests, and we are looking at where we can build greater links with Māori business in all the sectors that Māori are invested in – so in agriculture, obviously; in food production, also; in tourism, in fashion. There’s a whole range of areas.

Part of enhancing relationships with New Zealand was what you did in Gisborne. You led the expression of regret to iwi from the British Government for the historical deaths at the hands of the Endeavour crew. Why did you see that as an important thing to do?

It was very important for me at the most human level, really. So, the iwi and hapu– Ngāti Oneone and the Turanga iwi collective came to see me in December last year, and they said they wanted a process of reconciliation, acknowledgement and a forward-looking relationship. And so that was why then, on the 2nd of October, I went to Gisborne, I went to Tairawhiti, and delivered that expression of regret. Because it’s very important, I think, when you’re wanting to build a forward-looking relationship – which we absolutely are – that you’re able to look back and acknowledge the past and acknowledge the pain of that past, which has been handed down from generation to generation.

What are the other things that you’re going to prioritise? You’re two years into your term; what’s the next two years going to hold for you?

So, we’ve talked Brexit, we’ve talked Māori engagement, and… And, actually, in that, I will just – if I can – just tell you that we’re taking a delegation, a cultural delegation, across to the UK in November to increase iwi access to the various taonga held in UK cultural institutions. So that’s a really exciting project that’s for He Whai Matauranga.

So you’re talking about taonga held in museums, like that?

In the UK. So, it’s called He Whai Matauranga. It’s about ‘in pursuit of knowledge’, and it’s really about enabling greater iwi access to those taonga. We’ll also be announcing some scholarships for cultural students to spend more time in the UK.

The UK scaled down its involvement in the Pacific in the 200s, closing High Commissions, and now you’re opening High Commissions in Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa. Why the change of heart?

Yeah. So, that’s right. Sorry, because I diverted from your question about what else I want to do in the next two years. I mean, that’s a really key area, is about the UK increasing its engagement in the Pacific. And as you say, we’re opening– We’ve already opened in Vanuatu – I have a colleague, Karen Bell, who’s the High Commissioner in Vanuatu – and later this year, early next, we’re opening in Samoa and Tonga, and that’s really–

Sure. Why? Why are you doing this?

Well, it’s a number of reasons. There’s a bit of a recognition that perhaps we stepped back from our friends in the Pacific in the early 2000s, and, you know, they’re very close; we’ve got strong historical links – there are nine Commonwealth members there – so it’s about really building those relationships further. It’s partly because for us, climate change is a really key part of our work, domestically and internationally.

What about Pacific politics? Is it because China’s been making a bigger play in the Pacific and the US has been pressing back?

I think it’s about– It’s about being there, being present, being another partner to work with our Pacific Island friends and colleagues and work alongside other international partners there as well. You know, everyone has a particular thing to bring. And it’s about looking about how we can complement the work of others, provide a range of options and a range of partners for our Pacific Island friends.

OK. British High Commissioner Laura Clarke, thank you very much for your time.

Nice to talk. Thanks a lot.

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