If David Cameron was the closest thing John Key had to a political mentor, their successors also share a whole lot in common. Theresa May and Bill English were both propelled into the top jobs as the result of unexpected resignations, and without much in the way of credible competition from their colleagues. Neither have yet been given a mandate to govern by the electorate although – in both countries – the Labour opposition is in less than robust shape.
In May’s case, one of her main qualifications for high office was her six years as a safe pair of hands at the Home Office. English too, has a reputation built on managerial competence, rather than excitement or innovation. Both politicians are – shall we say –flexible on matters of political ideology. Privately, both are religious, and what the Catholic Herald said of May a few months ago could equally be said of English:
May remains a regular churchgoer but she will never be someone who talks a great deal about her religious beliefs. Insofar as she wants people to know about her faith it is through works rather than words.
Yet – and most importantly – it is difficult to grasp just what, if anything, lies beyond the veneer of competence. For New Zealanders there isn’t a challenge like Brexit that is dominating the political agenda, so there’s more time for contemplation of the leader that’s been thrust upon us. He does seems pleasant enough, but what’s he for, exactly?
Government policy seems to be running like one of those self-driving cars you read about, on settings that were devised years ago. Anyone could run it. If English is there mainly to ceremonially unveil the tax cuts on Budget Day in May, what should we do with him in the meantime? Send him overseas? Done. So English has just gone on a “Hi I’m Bill” tour to Europe. On his visit to Downing St, he was almost ridiculously undemanding of Theresa May, over her crackdown on Kiwis seeking to work in the UK. After all, English suggested, she’s a very busy woman with lots of far more important things on her plate than us.
Given the context, I think it would be quite unreasonable of us to expect some movement on the issue when they are trying to deal with large scale issues of immigrations and people flows with the EU.
He said that was at the core of the Brexit negotiations with the EU. “And much as we’d like them to pay more attention to us, I don’t expect we should push Mrs May’s good will too hard on that.
So we indicated that we will continue to advocate for easier access for Kiwis, but we wouldn’t expect we will get engagement on it until they’ve dealt with the bigger issues.”
Somehow, its hard to imagine an Australian politician being such a doormat while engaging with a British PM who had been cracking down on Australians. Last September Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop struck a steelier, more dignified tone in her visit to Britain, when addressing the same subject:
Ms Bishop said the ability to work, travel and study in the UK and vice versa is an essential part of such a close relationship. “Should we be in a position to conclude a free-trade agreement after Brexit well then obviously [improved access] can be the subject of a free-trade agreement.”
“It’s something we were able to achieve with the United States and I certainly look forward to increasing the number of business visas, student visas, work visas, between Australia and the UK.
Bishop had also firmly reminded the Brits that this relationship was a two way street:
“Australia is a significant investor in London in particular and the UK is a significant investor in Australia so we have an interest in ensuring that this relationship endures and that’s one way that it will do so.”
Regardless…here at home, English still got points for furthering New Zealand’s chances of a trade deal with the UK, post Brexit. Yet as one can see from the above, the Australians were already there pushing that same barrow months before, well ahead of us.
The time frame for this supposed triumph is also worth considering. If English thinks he is going to take care of the ‘Kiwis in the UK’ immigration issue via a trade deal with a free and independent Britain once the terms of Brexit are sorted out with the Europeans then….lets not hold our breath. Given the two year negotiating period once Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty has been triggered….that means we’d be lining up to talk with the Brits sometime around the election after the next election, and something concrete would finally emerge for voters to evaluate in about three elections from now. Grand work, Bill ! Evidently, this is a man who plays the long game.
Trading in Phantoms
The Australians are not the only ones lining up to negotiate with Britain, post Brexit, on trade. President-elect Donald Trump also thinks that a US/UK deal can be wrapped up pretty soon after Brexit, too. So New Zealand will be having some competition on that trade front, whenever May or her successor gets around to it. The only thing that could conceivably help us get to the front of a queue is that Britain – like China before it – might want to use New Zealand as the canary in the goldmine, in order to fashion an FTA prototype before going in to negotiate on that front with the guys who really matter.
Trump’s readiness to embrace Brexit as a great idea, (and to suggest an FTA with the Brits once the UK is shot of those pesky Europeans) is instructive. Keep in mind that Trump rejected the TPP on the grounds it didn’t deliver enough to US corporates and their workers. So any US/UK FTA is likely to be hard sledding for the Brits. On such issues as food safety for instance, the US currently falls well short of the standards set by those pernickety Germans – who don’t like drenching their chickens in chlorine or pumping their beef full of hormones, as the Americans are wont to do.
That will pose a further problem for May, in future. Once free of European demands for higher standards, how will Britain choose to proceed? Enter little, reliably pliable New Zealand, which likes to be liked by everyone. That’s going to be hard. Reportedly, we are trying to negotiate an FTA with the EU that will entail those same high standards and regulatory strictures, and also with a UK that will have just done its best to escape from them. So if we’re to be first cab off the rank (or very near to it) we will not want to be seen by the Europeans to be simultaneously colluding with Britain, especially in order to pursue the kind of laxer standards on trade that the US will be demanding.
So we do face a few difficult choices ahead on trade policy. Now that the TPP is all but dead, are we willing to further antagonise the Trump administration by pursuing the regional RCEP trade deal that includes China and India, but excludes the US? Elsewhere, will we line up with the Europeans on issues like phylo-sanitary standards – or with the emerging US/UK preference for 19th century standards on labour, the environment and food safety? English may be a pleasant fellow. But on Trump Planet, wanting to liked by everyone is for pussies.
Party time !
Only 48 hours to the Trump inaugural. It seems as if the A-list celebrities from Hell-ywood are agreed on boycotting the event. Despite Trump promising only last month on Twitter that mega-stars will be attending his inaugural galas, it now seems he’s dialing back expectations, making a virtue out of necessity, and will be running a more muted affair, while grumbling about the liberal glitterati. Sad !
As mentioned in this column the other day, country musician Toby Keith has been one of the few ‘stars’ willing to attend the Trump festivities, and his “ How Do You Like Me Now” hit is a stunningly apt song for the occasion. The other dimly recognizable name due to perform is the rock band 3 Doors Down. From their website, take a look at the band’s touring schedule for the next few months. In its own way, it speaks volumes :
And their one big hit “Kryptonite” also has some relevant lyrics:
If I go crazy then will you still
Call me Superman
If I’m alive and well, will you be
There holding my hand
I’ll keep you by my side with
My superhuman might
Talking of stars, and in another city…there’s always this to console us :
And here’s Ryan Gosling back when he was just a kid, bringing the (MC) Hammer down :