History was made in Aotearoa New Zealand this week, when the newly-elected second term Ardern Labor government swore in its first woman foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, to the role. From the prime minister to the governor general, New Zealand’s highest roles are held by women, and 55 percent of Labor MPs are women. Reflecting New Zealand’s diversity, the new government also has the highest ever percentage of indigenous Maori MPs, as well as ethnic and LGBT+ MPs.
Yet many were surprised by the appointment, including Mahuta herself, as she had never before had a high profile in foreign affairs work. Her appointment is a strong signal that the new Labor government will continue the foreign affairs policies of the first term government and also pursue a more prominent stateswoman role for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
In her first speech to the media after taking up the foreign minister portfolio, Mahuta said she would like to work strongly on relationships in the Pacific, along with her associate minister, Aupito William Sio. Mahuta highlighted that New Zealand foreign policymaking is decided by a collective of senior ministers, saying, “I’m privileged to be able to lead the conversation in the foreign space.”
New Zealand’s main Cabinet committee for foreign policy and national security is the External Relations and Security (ERS) Committee and it is chaired by the minister of foreign affairs. The ERS Committee includes the prime minister and deputy prime minister, as well as the ministerial portfolios of biosecurity, civil defense, customs, defense, immigration, police, the intelligence collection agencies (Government Communications Security Bureau and Security Intelligence Security), and now COVID-19. Managing the economic, social, and political fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the top priorities of New Zealand’s domestic and foreign policy
Mahuta is one of Labor’s quiet performers. She has not had such a high media presence as some other Labor ministers. But she does have a well-established track record within the broad ambit of NZ foreign policy, which tends to have a strong trade focus. Mahuta, a tribal member of Waikato-Tainui, Ngati Maniapoto, and Ngati Manu, was associate minister for trade and export growth, as well as minister for Maori development and local government, associate minister for the environment, and associate minister for housing (Maori housing), in the previous Coalition government from 2017 to 2020. Maori interests own more than a third of New Zealand’s primary industries, notably in key export sectors such as timber, dairy, and seafood. Mahuta was also the minister of customs, as well as youth development, local government and associate environment minister under the Helen Clark administration from 2005 to 2008. Mahuta stood for the Labor Party leadership in 2014, losing out to Andrew Little, who was succeeded in 2017 by Ardern.
In New Zealand, as in other Westminster democracies, the prime minister and Cabinet have ultimate authority over foreign policy decision making. In his farewell speech in 2017, New Zealand’s longest serving foreign minister Murray McCully noted that “the real foreign minister is always the prime minister.”
Ardern signaled she was planning to take a more prominent role in foreign policy in a pre-election interview. In the first term of her administration she spear-headed the Christchurch Call, a global initiative to eliminate terrorist and violent extremism online. Ardern made global headlines at international leadership events such as the East Asian Summit and U.N. leaders week.
Yet despite having overall responsibility for national security and intelligence, Ardern made relatively few foreign policy statements in her first term, leaving that role to Foreign Minister Winston Peters, leader of the NZ First Party.
Some of the most pressing current concerns for New Zealand’s national security sit in the areas of foreign interference and counterterrorism, but it is an area of policy where Ardern said very little in public, clearly preferring an approach where actions speak louder than words. The first term Ardern government shepherded a quiet case-by-case recalibration of the New Zealand-China relationship, claiming any legislative changes were “country agnostic,” and they managed to avoid significant retribution. Labor leaders promised to pass more such legislation if re-elected.
Ardern was a deft coalition leader, who gave room for Peters to shine as an experienced international diplomat and elder statesman. In 2018, Peters launched a bold new direction for New Zealand foreign policy, including the Pacific Reset. The reset had two drivers: acknowledgements that the Pacific Islands region faces an array of challenges in traditional and non-traditional security and that the Pacific has become an “increasingly contested strategic space” – read by many as code for the ever-increasing interests of China in the Pacific.
The small island states of the Pacific are facing major issues such as rising sea levels, illegal fishing, people smuggling, drug smuggling, and gunrunning – problems they cannot solve on their own. The small island states of the South Pacific act as a shield for New Zealand. If a hostile nation controlled one of the island states on New Zealand’s maritime periphery, they could cut off New Zealand shipping and communications. Supporting the politics and economy of Pacific island nations is thus a basic means for protecting the security of New Zealand.
More than ever in the COVID-19 era, the Pacific states and territories need to pull together to address common concerns. Most of the Pacific states, like New Zealand, have succeeded in controlling the pandemic, but their economies are devastated by the same border closures that are keeping their populations safe. New Zealand is in discussion with several Pacific neighbors, as well as Australia, to open up a travel bubble.
The Pacific Reset strategy highlighted the importance of selecting New Zealand Maori and Pacifica representatives to work with Pacific leaders and communities and drawing on Maori cultural connections and traditions when working with locals. The Ardern government has moved forward on that front. Besides the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as foreign minister, Samoan-born Aupito William Sio, who bears a matai title (paramount chief), was tapped as associate foreign minister; Peeni Henare (with tribal affiliations to Te Aupouri, Ngati Kahu, Ngati Hine, Ngati Manu, Te Kapotai, Ngapuhi, Ngati Whatua, Te Whakatohea, Rongowhakaata, and Ngati Kahungunu) as defense minister; Kris Faafoi, of Tokelauan descent, as minister of immigration as well as justice; and Cook Islands-born Poto Williams as minister for police. These are inspired choices, which will send a strong message to New Zealand’s Pacific partners of the Ardern government’s priorities and continuities with the previous administration.
We can expect the Ardern government’s second term foreign policy to follow a similar direction to that of the previous Coalition government: a strong Pacific focus, careful recalibration of the China relationship, and prioritizing spreading the trade risk. New Zealand will partner with the United States wherever possible, but lean in hard on expanding relations with small and medium states.
In recent years, New Zealand has been engaging in a self-conscious process of imagining and establishing its own international identity, and in that process, learning to embrace its bicultural heritage. More and more people embracing the Maori name for the nation, Aotearoa, has been part of that. Under Ardern’s leadership, the foreign ministry has promoted a values-based foreign policy highlighting rule of law, fairness, integrity, representation of the voice of small countries, and the concepts of kaitiakitanga (stewardship or addressing global challenges for present and future generations), manakitanga (honor and respect of others), and kotahitanga (drawing strength from New Zealand’s diversity). Maori cultural protocol is increasingly incorporated into New Zealand’s diplomatic practice.
The choice of Nanaia Mahuta, a fluent speaker of te reo Maori, is thus an apt and inspired choice to lead the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Ardern’s first term government avoided megaphone diplomacy, but took quiet actions in defense of its interests. We can expect Foreign Minister Mahuta, Prime Minister Ardern, and all her ministers with foreign policy portfolios, to continue this trend.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady is the author of “Small States and the Changing Global Order: New Zealand Faces the Future” (Springer 2019). Follow her on Twitter @Anne-MarieBrady.