Bipartisanship emerges as the flavour of the week

John Key.
John Key.
Considering he is an arch-rival in the parliamentary press pack, Patrick Gower's intervention in a Donald Trump press conference on Wednesday engendered an immediate sense of bipartisanship back home.

‘‘Go Paddy!'' a reporter from Radio NZ tweeted before he had even got his question out. Others including myself took to Twitter about his brief appearance on CNN.

The Press Gallery is fiercely competitive but when one of our own is on the international stage, Press Pack Inc kicks in.

It is not the only case of bipartisanship that broke out at Parliament this week.

The Government is ‘‘reaching across the aisle'' to try to sew up Labour support for the Employment Standards Legislation Bill - which is intended to extend paid parental leave and outlaw zero-hour contracts.

Peter Dunne had already pledged to support the Bill provided there are some changes of wording.

So the Government did not actually need Labour's support. But it developed the Bill with the Council of Trade Unions and has been talking with Labour to get it back on board.

It is not doing it out of kindness but for its own purposes.

The longer a government goes on, the more it needs to minimise the fronts on which it can be attacked. If the front is too wide, it starts to look as though it is under siege. Errors and misjudgments which may be dismissed or forgiven in a first term are magnified in a third term.

Similarly Labour, while its core business is to oppose, will lose credibility when it opposes everything, or when its defining points of difference are out of step with what a reasonable person would think is reasonable.

Treaty settlements, trade and national security have been fairly settled areas of bipartisanship between Labour and National.

Labour's opposition to the TPP free-trade agreement was a huge departure from a bipartisan position.

Labour's opposition to sending non-combat troop trainers to Iraq was not as significant, although it played out badly for the party, giving the impression it was happy to shirk any load.

Labour, in fact, still believes New Zealand has a role in the international fight against IS and would support the SAS going if conditions were right.

Bipartisanship on the degree of contribution in conflicts has actually rarely been maintained.

Labour sent the SAS to Afghanistan but opposed National sending it when it came to power.

And while National was in Opposition it opposed Labour's decision not to join the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq in 2003.

It was not until John Key became prime minister that National adopted a truly bipartisan approach to New Zealand's anti-nuclear laws, and said they would not be changed.

Labour will be tested on the security front next week: whether to choose bipartisanship or opposition in relation to the security intelligence agencies.

Mr Key announced at his weekly press conference on Monday that he would not be pursuing changes to the security intelligence services recommended in the review without the support of Labour.

Even more interestingly, he asked reviewer Sir Michael Cullen to construct any recommendations with that bipartisanship in mind.

The report and recommendations will be tabled in Parliament next Wednesday and it is a safe bet that they will not be unreasonable.

The terms of reference explicitly exclude the notion of a merger between the domestic spy agency, the SIS, and the external spy agency, the GCSB, which would have been highly contentious.

Mr Key's aversion to a fight is for the same reasons National wants support on employment law changes.

He was bruised by opposition in 2012 to law changes to the Act governing the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Labour dispensed with the decades-old bipartisanship on the security agencies under the left-wing stewardship of David Cunliffe.

The environment was different back then, however.

There was enough evidence with the Dotcom affair to suggest the GCSB needed a major shakeup.

On top of that, Edward Snowden's leaks on mass surveillance in the US had just been published.

New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia was being challenged.

It was easy, although wrong, to suggest the law changes then opened up New Zealanders to mass surveillance.

Labour was content to join the mob.

The Cullen review will be making recommendations next week under a greatly changed environment.

Isis emerged as a threat only in 2014, less than two years ago.

On the election of Andrew Little as leader in 2014, Labour appeared to revert to a bipartisan approach on security issues.

It supported temporary laws extending the intrusive powers of the SIS to detect Isis supporters in New Zealand, powers that have formed part of the Cullen review.

Another challenge to bipartisanship will be New Zealand's Defence White Paper on the future shape of the defence force.

It is due out later this month or next month.

Part of the problem there is not only having to contend with increasing instability in the South China Sea but increasing uncertainty about the role of the United States in the region or other areas, commensurate with increasing uncertainty about who might be its next president.

Paddy's question to Donald Trump at Palm Beach, Florida, after Super Tuesday was perhaps the best question that has been asked by the international media: ‘‘You say a lot about what you're going to do for the United States but what kind of president will you be for the world?''

It is the question that has been perplexing foreign policy and defence gurus, academics, journalists, think-tanks and other leaders in the past few weeks.

The short answers are that Trump thinks Europe needs to be less reliant on the US in terms of its own defence, and he is willing to work more closely with Russia's Vladimir Putin to resolve conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

He calls China ‘‘the enemy'', although he may have meant economically rather than militarily, and he is not keen for China to join the TPP. But what that all means in terms of US engagement with the world is anybody's guess.

So how did he answer Paddy's excellent question?

‘‘I'm gonna be very good for the world. I'm gonna get along with the world. You're gonna be very proud of me. Even you are gonna be very proud of me.''

Donald Trump was perhaps the worst person to get a proper answer from.

But good on Newshub for sending The Patrick.

● Audrey Young is political editor of The New Zealand Herald.

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