Analysis by Geoffrey Miller.
A shakeup of the ministers responsible for New Zealand’s international relations seems almost guaranteed, irrespective of the country’s election result on October 14.
Coalition politics are likely to play a key role in appointments related to foreign affairs.
On current opinion polling, a government led by the centre-right National Party would probably need to work with both the right-wing Act and more centrist New Zealand First if it wants to govern with a stable majority.
Winston Peters, New Zealand First’s leader, has already served as foreign minister twice before: once from 2005-2008 and then again from 2017-2020 – in both cases working under Labour-led governments.
In his most recent stint in the role, from 2017-2020, Peters secured hundreds of millions of dollars of additional funding for the foreign ministry as part of what he called the ‘Pacific Reset’. That repositioning sought to boost New Zealand’s (and, by extension, Peters’) influence and align Wellington more closely with Washington to counter China in the region.
The New Zealand First leader’s willingness to forge closer ties with the Trump administration put Winston Peters somewhat at odds with his Prime Minister, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern. Ardern was generally happy to keep her distance from the US during her first term.
Five-and-a-half years on from its original unveiling in March 2018, the Pacific Reset may now seem like a well-worn narrative. But at the time, Peters was ahead of the curve. The fact that a Pacific focus has since become fashionable amongst Western decision-makers arguably makes it only more likely that Peters will want to pick up where he left off, if given the chance.
Still, there is always a chance of other scenarios coming to pass.
National’s current foreign affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, has held the job once before – albeit only for a few months in 2017. However, Brownlee has kept a low profile in the portfolio of late, issuing his last press release on foreign matters in November 2022, according to National’s website. Moreover, as one of National’s most senior MPs, he is understood to be a likely choice to become Parliament’s next Speaker.
Another rumoured option for the foreign affairs or defence roles is Judith Collins. Collins is currently the party’s science and technology spokesperson and has not previously held a foreign affairs-related portfolio. But she is also a former party leader and trained lawyer. Her personal brand as being on National’s right would in theory make her a good fit with New Zealand’s current drift towards a more hawkish foreign policy.
Balancing this out is the fact that Collins made headlines in 2014 in relation to her husband’s close business linkages with China. Given the importance of the China trade to New Zealand, particularly the farmers who make up a good portion of National’s base, the ability to see both sides would be a clear advantage. It would also be in keeping with the even-handed approach generally expected of New Zealand foreign ministers.
A wildcard for foreign minister – particularly if New Zealand First fails to make it into Parliament – could be Act’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Brooke van Velden. While both Collins and Peters are senior MPs, van Velden has served only a single term and is in her early 30s. Still, she has made a bigger impact than most new MPs. In 2021, she proposed a Parliamentary motion that would have described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as ‘genocide’. And in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, she quickly drew parallels between Europe and Asia, deploying the line ‘it could be Ukraine today and Taiwan tomorrow’. Van Velden would be an interesting outside choice, but she would probably need to moderate her ideology and tone if she were given the job.
This leaves the defence and trade roles. The current trend towards securitisation of foreign policy means that the defence portfolio, normally a lower-profile position in New Zealand than in many other countries, will continue to hold the increased status that it has gained under Andrew Little, the current Labour minister. The incoming government will need to decide on the implementation of New Zealand’s inaugural Defence Policy and Strategy Statement and National Security Strategy – including the controversial question of whether New Zealand should join the ‘second pillar’ of AUKUS.
Until recently, National’s defence spokesperson was Tim van de Molen, who has military experience in the New Zealand Army Territorials. However, van de Molen lost the job in August after he was censured by Parliament for threatening another MP. In the meantime, the portfolio has been reallocated to Gerry Brownlee.
In government, Judith Collins could take on defence, either because foreign affairs is taken by New Zealand First, or perhaps in addition to it, given the growing integration between the two portfolios. Alternatively, Chris Penk – a former officer in the Royal New Zealand Navy who also served in submarines for the Australian Defence Force – would be a logical choice for defence.
Trade seems relatively straightforward. Todd McClay, National’s current spokesperson, has held the job once before (from 2015-2017, at the tail-end of National’s last term in government). A former diplomat, McClay would be the obvious MP to appoint as trade minister again. The position has never previously been outsourced to a coalition partner, unlike both foreign affairs and defence.
We also need to consider the possibilities should a Labour-led government be returned to power. Defence and trade would probably see the respective current ministers of Andrew Little and Damien O’Connor continuing in their jobs – providing they make it back into Parliament. Backup choices would invariably rely upon MPs with safe seats. One contender would be Megan Woods, a senior Labour member who currently holds various ministerial portfolios including infrastructure and energy.
Meanwhile, it is possible that Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta could continue in the foreign affairs role, should she retain her seat in a head-to-head race with Te Pāti Māori. But another option is that James Shaw would claim the portfolio for the Green Party. Shaw has served as climate change minister since 2017, keeping the role even after Labour won an absolute majority in 2020. Shaw, the Greens’ co-leader, has been the subject of internal party manoeuvrings and would probably be happy to take on the prestigious foreign affairs role for what would almost certainly be his final term in government.
Of course, we should not forget that the Prime Minister also holds a very influential role in New Zealand foreign policymaking. This was demonstrated particularly clearly during Labour’s current second term, when Jacinda Ardern often overshadowed Mahuta by using her own international clout. For his part, Chris Hipkins – who took over from Ardern in January – used his own recent trip to China to shore up relations with Beijing. Following a meeting with Xi Jinping, Hipkins repeatedly characterised the encounter as ‘warm and constructive’.
The exact foreign policy views of Christopher Luxon, the National Party leader who could become Prime Minister in a few weeks’ time, remain largely unknown. However, Luxon did signal earlier this year that he wanted to take New Zealand’s relationship with India more seriously – promising to visit the country during his first year in office. And last year, he praised Jacinda Ardern’s visit to the White House, arguing ‘it’s great for New Zealand that the prime minister’s out there deepening the relationship with the US and meeting with President Biden’.
Regardless of whether Chris Hipkins or Christopher Luxon is Prime Minister after October 14, one early engagement for New Zealand’s leader will be to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco in mid-November.
Foreign affairs might be taking its traditional backseat during New Zealand’s election campaign.
But whatever the election outcome, an international relations reset is likely.
Get ready for some new faces.
Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian. He is currently working on a PhD on New Zealand’s relations with the Gulf states.
Democracy Project newsletters are free. Anyone can subscribe – just click on the button below.