NEW ZEALAND: by Bernard MoranNews Weekly
US links free trade to repeal of NZ nuclear ships ban
, November 2, 2002
The bombshell came on October 6 with a phone call from New York to a journalist in Wellington. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Dr Michael Cullen, fresh from talks with senior Bush Administration trade officials, admitted that NZ's nuclear-free law is now linked to the bid to conclude a free-trade deal.
It was made very clear to Dr Cullen that New Zealand's hopes to be included with Australia in a free-trade deal (estimated to add NZ$1 billion a year to the NZ economy) were illusory. Things had changed since September 11 and because of the anti-nuclear law, NZ would be way down the queue.PM furious
Prime Minister Helen Clark was reported to be furious at Dr Cullen's admission and promptly stated that there would be no change to the anti-nuclear law. There was alarm at the implications of Helen Clark's immediate and uncompromising public stance.
A few days later, Jim Sutton, Minister of Agriculture and Trade Negotiations, gave a full and frank account of his own earlier experiences to Sunday Star-Times
parliamentary reporter, Ruth Laugeson:
"The penny dropped several months ago. He [Sutton] had been reading diplomatic cables from New Zealand's embassy in Washington, when he noticed a strange pattern. Every Kiwi going to Washington to talk about trade ran into the same opening remarks from their hosts. The Americans all raised the issue of the nuclear-ships ban. Such unanimity from congressmen to officials was striking - and worrying.
"Even Americans who might have been vague in their minds as to where New Zealand was on the map of the world, before fate brought them into contact with New Zealand Ministers, have been briefed on it and raise it first thing, as if it was something that had just recently occurred.
"The fact that the nuclear issue is raised by Americans nowadays when we raise trade issues, but is not generally raised at other times, is clearly designed to create an impression in our minds."
Jim Sutton confirmed Ruth Laugeson's suggestion that the nuclear ships issue is the elephant in the room that no one in Labour wants to mention, despite the evidence that it is damaging economic prospects.
Washington is frustrated that Labour will not acknowledge the elephant. One mid-ranked Labour MP admits that the subject of any reconsideration is so taboo, that no one would even dare raise the idea at a Labour caucus meeting.
Sutton speculated about why the Bush Administration was adopting a tougher line. The last of the US Navy's conventional powered aircraft carriers that operate from Japan are due to be decommissioned within the next few years. Japan will then have to host a nuclear-powered ship, in the face of popular nuclear-free sentiment. America is concerned that Japanese anti-nuclear movements will be inspired by New Zealand's example.
Also, many of the senior people around Bush were serving in the Reagan Administration and still harbour a sense of resentment at what they regard as the NZ Labour Government's betrayal of ANZUS in the 1980s.
Regarding New Zealand's hope to ride along with Australia on securing a free-trade deal, Sutton admits that the Howard Government has framed its trade deal as a reward for a loyal ally. The inference is that New Zealand can and should be left out and the economic consequences have concentrated minds wonderfully on this side of the Tasman.Reconsideration
Three days after Dr Cullen's phone call from New York, both of New Zealand's leading newspapers, the NZ Herald
and Wellington's Dominion-Post
, carried strong editorials arguing for reconsideration of the anti-nuclear law, as vital to the national interest.
The NZ Herald
's final paragraph was aimed at Prime Minister Helen Clark, who had dismissed any talk of reconsideration as "childish":
"The nuclear policy has outlived its use as a point of sovereign pride. When it stands in the way of easier trade with the world's strongest economy, it reaches a point of sovereign stupidity."
However, the 17-year mythology of independent, clean-green, nuclear-free New Zealand has such popular appeal with many Kiwis, that even the National Party (equivalent to the Australian Liberals) is divided.
For example, in 1992, when the United States announced that its ships (except for submarines), would no longer be armed with nuclear weapons, the then National Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, failed to respond, fearing an electoral backlash.
Lockward Smith, a former National Trade Negotiations Minister, has called for "discussions" to examine whether the ban on nuclear-propelled ships should stand.
The National Party leader, Bill English, maintains that he has no personal convictions on the issue, but admits that given the potential economic impact on farm prices, "discussions" have merit.
Senior National MP, Dr Wayne Mapp, has a strong interest in defence policy and foreign affairs. He told News Weekly
that the National Caucus reflects the grassroots divisions and any reconsideration of the anti-nuclear stance has to involve "discussions" in tandem with evolving popular opinion, as the new political and economic realities are absorbed. This is a process that could take many months and, given the Prime Minister's uncompromising attitude, might be a defining feature of the 2005 national elections.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Star-Times
reports that the Clark Government has made it clear that it wants to keep talking to the US "with the elephant still in the room." Extra resources will be deployed to influence Congress, the Senate and the Administration; the idea being to build a critical mass of support for New Zealand's case.
The problem is that while influential Americans may agree that the New Zealand Labour Government presents a good case, the bottom line is that American warships and their sailors are not welcome in NZ ports - but they are in Australia.