Magazine article New Zealand Management

The Bipartisan Divide. (Politics)

Magazine article New Zealand Management

The Bipartisan Divide. (Politics)

Article excerpt

Every now and then someone calls for a "bipartisan" foreign policy, there allegedly was in some past golden age. Why do these calls fall on deaf political ears?

For a start, many of them were made by academics or other commentators who talk about foreign policy but don't do it. Those who practise foreign policy can safely ignore such people in a country that does not much value expert and academic analysis.

More to the point, however, there probably has never really been a "bipartisan" foreign policy. Iraq exposed that brutally.

The word "bipartisan" stems from the days when Labour and National had Parliament to themselves (or as good as did). Nowadays it would translate as something like "near-consensus", allowing for fringe departures such as the Greens' and ACT's.

But "bipartisan" captures the essence of the notion that, in facing the world, ideally major parties that can lead governments would broadly agree on priorities, objectives and approaches.

The reasoning is that whatever enmities there are within the country, our enemies without are a greater threat because that threatens our national integrity. And even if there are no security threats, bipartisanship would help achieve, say, a free trade agreement because foreigners could not play off factions to diminish bargaining power.

There are two problems with this, one general and the other specific.

The general problem is that the Government conducts foreign affairs and defence under the Crown's vestigial "royal prerogative". Technically, when the Government acts on foreign policy it embodies the country, as the monarch once did. Other parties are shut out. Parliament cannot amend treaties, for example.

But our politics, which are republican in sentiment if not in form, don't much respect constitutional niceties. Anyway at the next turn of the wheel the opposition will call the shots. It fears that biting its tongue in opposition would shackle it in office.

The specific problem with the bipartisan notion is that actually Labour and National view the world outside from fundamentally different perspectives. They always have, even though at times they have appeared to be in step.

The touchstone for this country's foreign policy, which in effect dates from the 1930s when the first Labour government made the first real break with Britain--over Italy's invasion of Ethiopia--is our smallness. …

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