Chris Hipkins wins a diplomatic test in China but faces rattles at home

RNZ Photos clockwise from top: Chris Hipkins in China, National Party Leader Christopher Luxon, Labour MP Kiri Allan and an RNZAF Boeing 757

Peter Wilson
Wellington, July 1, 2023

The meeting of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins with Chinese President Xi Jinping was, by all reported accounts, a success.

It took place against a challenging backdrop of superpower competition in the Pacific region, China’s tacit support for Russia in the war against Ukraine and the fine line New Zealand has to tread with its largest trading partner.

When Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta met her Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in March 2023, she suffered an hour-long ‘epic haranguing,’ according to the Australian newspaper. She said that their discussions were very robust, which could have meant the same thing.

Hipkins’ China experience was the opposite of that.

Open for Business

“China always views New Zealand as a friend and a partner. Your visit this time is very meaningful, especially since countries in our region have been following your visit very carefully,” President Jinping said.

Hipkins did not go quite as far as ‘friend and partner,’ instead saying “I would certainly describe it as a warm relationship and warm conversation.”

Their talks focused on bilateral trade and economic opportunities, with Hipkins emphasising New Zealand was “open for business.”

He said he had “referenced” human rights – a difficult question that New Zealand leaders always face after they meet their Chinese counterparts.

The atmospherics had been helped by Hipkins earlier declining to describe Jinping the way US President Joe Biden had – as a dictator. Asked if he agreed with that, Hipkins replied: “No, and the form of government China has is a matter for the Chinese people.”

Chinese media picked that up.

A Model to the West

“The tabloid Global Times published an opinion column saying that New Zealand’s softer approach was a model for other Western countries to follow and strongly hinted that this approach brought with it significant trade advantages,” the New Zealand Herald reported.

Stuff’s Political Editor Luke Malpass said that China had mounted a charm offensive on Hipkins’ trip – “lauding New Zealand for the way it has conducted its foreign policy, a tactic that is interpreted by some of New Zealand’s traditional friends and Five Eyes partners as China trying to slowly wick New Zealand away from its traditional allies.”

As for the way Hipkins handled himself, Newshub headlined its report ”Chris Hipkins has passed his first diplomatic test.”

The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan said Hipkins had done his job in China and done it well.

Jane Patterson, RNZ’s Political Editor, travelling with Hipkins, said that the Prime Minister had done what he came to do, concluding what the government would see as a successful mission within the bilateral relationship.

“However, there remain several gnarly areas of disagreement between the two countries and not all back home are happy with the lack of emphasis on human rights, and the warm words exchanged about the state of the relationship,” she said.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon had rare praise for Hipkins. “I think the Prime Minister is doing exactly what we expect our Prime Ministers to do. It is an important relationship for New Zealand and needs to be maintained,” he said.

Trouble at home

Patterson noted that Hipkins’ meeting with the most senior Chinese leaders – he also held talks with Premier Li Qiang – should have been the only thing he talked about, yet he was once again facing questions about one of his ministers “hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.”

That was Justice Minister Kiri Allan.

Stuff broke the story on Wednesday (June 28, 2023), reporting that a Department of Conservation staffer seconded to work with Allan chose to leave the Minister’s office early because of concerns about “working relationships.”

Problems in the office saw DoC Chief Executive Penny Nelson take her concerns to Ministerial Services, which handles staff in Beehive offices.

Nelson confirmed that in a statement, saying that she had become aware the Minister’s office “was not running as smoothly as it might.”

“Stuff understands that other senior public servants – including from Emergency Management and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – have also voiced concerns about how staff were treated,” the report said.

Allan was on leave from Parliament, and after the report appeared, she posted on social media that she had been struggling with her mental health triggered by personal circumstances.

The Herald reported that the personal circumstances were the break-up of Allan’s relationship with her partner Mani Dunlop.

“Allan confirmed the break-up in recent weeks, saying that it was a personal matter and she did not wish to comment further on it,” the report said.

Hipkins’ office was the first to react to the Stuff report.

There had been no formal complaints about Minister Allan.

“Some issues have been raised about how to improve working relations in the Minister’s office. Work was done to improve the situation and no further issues were raised,” the statement said.

Allan returned to Parliament on June 29, 2023, vigorously defending herself.

No allegations had ever been put to her that she had had to deal with on a staffing front, she said.

Asked if heads of different agencies had raised concerns, she replied: “No, not once. There have never been any formal allegations put to me”.

Throughout the questioning of Allan in Parliament and Hipkins in China, the emphasis was on no “formal” complaints being raised.

Allan said that she was proud of her team.

Patterson said that trouble brewing at home was déjà vu for Hipkins and the story should be kept in perspective. It happened more than a year ago, there had been no formal complaints and that particular problem appeared to have been resolved.

Mauls of disaster

“But if it is only one example of a broader pattern of behaviour – that is a problem for her and Hipkins,” Patterson said.

“The Prime Minister will well remember initially giving Stuart Nash and then Michael Wood the benefit of the doubt, but the ensuing weeks would become rolling mauls of disaster for all involved, ending two cabinet careers and inflicting serious political damage on the government.”

There were indications another rolling maul of disaster might be unfolding.

“Kiri Allan ‘yelled and screamed’ at me, a senior public servant says” was the headline on a Stuff report. It said that the senior public servant had decades of experience.

“The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that they witnessed Allan’s interactions with younger staff members both from government agencies and her Beehive office in a meeting, as well as seeing her ‘absolutely berate’ another official for 20 minutes on another occasion.”

Allan strongly refuted the allegations, the report said.

There’s a lot more to it, including NEMA’s chief executive David Gawn saying in a statement that he had been aware of concerns in the minister’s office.

In Parliament, Acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni was facing questions.

Luxon had decided on a strategy and asked a series of detailed questions about the economy.

Sepuloni is not an Economic Minister, she holds lead portfolios of Economic Development, Workplace Relations, Arts and Culture.

The Herald’s Audrey Young said that it was an attempt to humiliate Sepuloni.

“He (Luxon) did not want a good answer, He did not want to debate policy. He wanted to rattle Sepuloni and ask questions he hoped would show her up,” she said.

When it was reported that there was another RNZAF plane ghosting the one carrying Hipkins and his trade delegation to China, in case it broke down, there was the inevitable flurry of excitement in Parliament.

Hipkins’ office quickly shot down a report that both planes were in China, saying the reserve was in Manila in case it was needed and would be re-positioned in Darwin for the return trip.

“Using RNZAF aircraft is far cheaper than a commercial charter and has other benefits, such as security, and the ability to travel point to point to reduce time away from home and additional costs such as hotels, which would be required if there were stopovers,” the spokesperson said.

Peter Wilson is a Life Member of Parliament’s Press Gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s Political Editor and seven years as Parliamentary Bureau Chief for NZ Newswire. The above Report (edited) and pictures have been published under a special agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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