New Zealand and European Union begin formal trade negotiations


Whilst most people were more interested in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s baby girl being born, I was watching the arrival of the European Union chief negotiator Cecilia Malmstrom. Mrs Malmstrom is from and is visiting New Zealand to formally launch trade negotiations with a view to completing a trade agreement between New Zealand and the E.U.

I do have some reservations about the potential F.T.A. that the European Union is likely to seek. They include but are not limited to:

  • the concessions that New Zealand will be asked to make, and what we will be granted in return.
  • that the competing factions inside the E.U. will make it difficult for New Zealand to get a level deal across all of the E.U. member states
  • That provisions around the Euro will leave the New Zealand dollar at a disadvantage

In terms of the member states, there are 27 separate countries, each with their own agenda. Some like France will be highly unionized economies with a degree of reluctance to shed the protective cloak that tariffs and subsidies can offer sectors that are not performing so strongly – their propensity for a good riot when some decision or another goes against them is well noted.

I also wonder if Mrs Malmstrom is the best suited person for this job. The first is she had a major role in promoting the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T.T.I.P.), which is the European equivalent of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership. Like the T.P.P.A./C.P.T.P.P. it has run into significant opposition over issues ranging from enacting laws that are allegedly going to harm corporate profitability to human rights, the environment and international copyright laws. The second is that despite claims made by her that the European Commission for Trade has unprecedented transparency, it is not possible for many European politicians to read important documents.

The European Union, however, are serious. This is a serious chance for New Zealand to negotiate a trade agreement that can help the economic development of this country. The shared respect we have for human rights and environmental issues will hopefully help to undermine the concerns that are held about Mrs Malmstrom’s past record.

So soon after their role in negotiating the damaging Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement which will undermine New Zealand sovereignty, it is rather rich of National to be talking about the need for a “fair” agreement. This is all the more so when an interpretation of “fair” presumes to mean no undue concessions by either side, respect for the others negotiating position and understanding of public concerns. None of this was recognized by National or A.C.T. when they were leading the negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership between 2010-2017.

New Zealand is lucky enough that although we lack constitutional safeguards to stop the undermining of our natural sovereignty, we have a degree of transparency that is not enjoyed in other nations. Had we had the transparency of a country such as Singapore, a semi-authoritarian nation-state, I doubt New Zealanders would know nearly as much as they do because of the mechanisms that protect our right to know.

So, whilst there are potential opportunities for New Zealand, there are potential pitfalls as well. Due caution around these negotiations is well advised.

Doubling the refugee quota in New Zealand; other nations close their borders


Yesterday the New Zealand Parliament came together in a rare, but commendable move. How rare on foreign politics is it to see Labour, National and New Zealand First all singing from the same song sheet?

They were addressing queries from the media on what they thought of the United States moves to separate children from their parents at the United States border. None of them agreed with it, recognizing the cruelty, acknowledging it is not something they would want to see happen here.

So, to be clear, a refugee is a person who:

“is outside of their country and is unable and or unwilling to return or avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well grounded fear of persecution on reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion” – Article 1A, Paragraph 1 Convention relating to the status of Refugees, 1951

And an asylum seeker is a person who:

An asylum seeker is an individual who is seeking international protection. In countries with individualised procedures, an asylum seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she has submitted it. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

Meanwhile, as has been well highlighted in the media, the United States is closing its border to asylum seekers. Whilst U.S. President Donald Trump will say that the United States needs security, he and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions are deliberately ignoring some salient facts:

  1. It is okay to turn up at the border and ask for asylum.
  2. People fleeing the circumstances in their countries of origin that are making most of these people flee are not likely to have time for lengthy, drawn out immigration processes due to the high level of danger in their country
  3. If the people fleeing are doing so because they are considered an enemy of the state or a target of organized crime groups which can be extremely ruthless, any evidence of attempted asylum may get them killed

Many of the problems caused in Honduras and other countries in terms of organized crime and political instability can be traced back to past U.S. interference in their domestic politics. So, in some respects this is sort of the price that America must pay for past transgressions by the C.I.A. and F.B.I.

New Zealand should have no trouble doubling its quota immediately. 1,500 is a quite modest number to take per year, even for a nation of our size. If we look at the refugees and asylum seeker numbers in some of the smaller Middle East countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, whose security is much less certain than our own, they have many times more – as of September 2015 1.9 million refugees were in Turkey; 1.1 million in Lebanon; 630,000 in Jordan and 250,000 in Iraq.

The benefits of having refugees in New Zealand is significant. Contrary to the misguided beliefs of some, refugees feel that they have been given a second chance, and so the motivation to return the compassion is great. For example New Zealand took refugees from the Tampa freighter in 2001 when Australia in a moment of election cowardice refused them. Within a matter of years they became contributing tax paying residents owning small businesses, becoming lawyers, tradesmen and so forth.

If these refugees can be of use, so, I am sure, can many many others.

Group of 7 farce bad for all Western nations


First there was the shock. United States President Donald Trump pulling rank on the Group of 7 declaration. Then came the exchange between Mr Trump and his Canadian counterpart Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A nasty exchange that would have left the other delegates shocked. And did.

No one in the west won when Mr Trump refused to support the G7 declaration. Whilst the declaration is largely ceremonial it has the purpose of detailing what principles the summit upholds. So when one nation or another throws a hissy fit – which is what Mr Trump did – and walks away without supporting it, not only does that nation undermine the G7, but it undermines the entire western world.

But there were winners. Every dictator quietly hoping for discord and division in the west over the G7 summit farce would have been smiling at the news that Mr Trump had had a show down with the hosts, Canada. The photo that has been circulating of Mr Trump sitting in a chair at a table with various leaders standing around glaring at him tells us more about the scale of the disbelief better than a 1,000 word essay could have. The only person supporting Mr Trump was – not surprisingly – John Bolton, the hard line National Security Advisor who has never had much time for diplomacy, irrespective of what it achieves.

Contrary to the discourse coming out of the White House, Mr Trump has no intention of anything that could amount to fair or otherwise reasonable trade terms. His “America first” doctrine, smacks of the dangerous hardline nationalist sentiment that past dictatorships have displayed with disastrous results. Its brutalist nature must, when it reared its head in the ugly exchange between Canada and the United States, must have left Mr Trudeau wondering if he had been struck by a base ball.

When the words from Pink Floyd’s song “Pigs” more adequately describe Mr Trump than a media editorial, it is a hugely damning indictment on the depths which his Presidency has plumbed. When the western world needs leadership and unity, it is instead having discord and distrust sown by the most powerful person in the free world.

Nations like New Zealand do not need this. Even more powerful nations like Australia and Canada, long time friends and allies of the United States, despite having quite different leaders at the moment must be nervous about what Mr Trump has done and what it might mean for them. Mr Trudeau will be wishing that this was just a bad dream and that when the sun comes up, all will be hunky dory.

Sorry mate. Ain’t gonna happen. Mr Trump on one hand knows exactly what he is doing in that he is keeping good the promises he made to his strident supporters who hope for a second coming of a declining super power that was once respected and admired throughout the free world. On the other though he has not a clue about the damage that is being inflicted on America internationally by his politics. And that damage is harming America’s relationship with all of its allies and friends, including New Zealand.

Don’t expect anything historic at Trump-Kim summit


As I was typing this last night, news was breaking of Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Singapore for a historic summit with President Donald Trump of the United States.

So much rides on what will happen in Singapore on Tuesday. So much depends on how the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim goes. But New Zealand, like the rest of the world need to be realistic about the prospects. We also need to harbour a healthy doubt until verified by neutral sources that Kim has indeed kept his promises made in the last few months.

I certainly have my doubts. Mr Trump is reactionary. Mr Kim is calculating. Mr Trump has the most powerful military in the world, but needs to be mindful of South Korea, whose capital Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean guns. Mr Kim’s military might be short on equipment, poorly trained and led, but it has the vast power of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to prop it up.

Not I believe war is going to break out. I don’t, but much as I would like to see the Korean peninsula become a nuclear free zone I do not believe that this is going to happen.

How do we know that Mr Trump’s presidential body guards and Kim’s guards will not have a fight? How do we know that one or the other will simply not turn up on the day and leave Singapore looking really embarrassed at having this fall over flat for no fault of their own?

I do not believe that the purported closure of Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility actually went ahead. How do we know that the explosions caught on video were actually at the Punggye-ri site? And if they were? How do we know that these buildings – some of which looked more like domestic tool sheds or something one might have done pottery in – were actually used for nuclear weapons purposes? We do not.

My view is that Punggye-ri is very much still functioning. The site might be closed for repairs following the large nuclear test last year, which generated an energy release equivalent to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, but I doubt very much that it is closed for good.

It is well known if you believe the media, that Mr Trump has not done very much preparation. Given that this is a one in a life time opportunity to end one of the worlds longest running wars, make more stable the last active front line in Cold War geopolitics and potentially denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, these are very concerning claims make. And yet, given Mr Trump’s impulsive, child like attitude towards global diplomacy and world leaders, not actually dreadfully surprising.

Mr Trump left the G.7. early to get away from an international meeting that showed America at its least trustful, divisive worst. But he is now heading into another one where a wrong move by either side could have long lasting complications for global security long after Mr Trump leaves office and possibly cost Mr Kim a chance at solidifying himself as the next “Dear Leader”. He is heading into a meeting where the hand of China is the real power behind Mr Kim – China can crush Kim virtually overnight if it wants to, except that Mr Kim and his North Korean regime serve a useful purpose for Beijing by preventing a democratic Korean Peninsula existing all the way to the Yalu River.

So, I wait, like many others, with interest to see what will happen on 12 June 2018. Will a ray of sunlight break through the dark clouds lurking in international geopolitics, or we see a distant flash of lightning?

Meme’s as misinformation (and disinformation)on social media


How many of you have clicked on a meme on Facebook? Be honest.

Memes are a popular way of getting a message across with a catchy graphic and a short but choice selection of words. They are intended to convey a point in a few seconds with minimal thinking involved. That is if the graphic and the text match.

But what about what the meme is telling the viewer and reality? Quite often there is degree of separation between the reality and what is being implied.

Much of the time the meme might be based on regurgitated information that was correct at the time of publication, but which is no longer the case. Many of them are completely harmless as people generally know enough to realize it is outdated.

A more concerning meme is the type that believed by people with a social disconnect, or who come from backgrounds where education was not such a high priority. Without any thought they might be unwittingly passing on disproved information. Almost none of these meme’s have references attached so it is difficult to track down who the author was or where their information came from. Many might have been written as a joke, but have somehow become gospel. Others were simply written out of boredom, got popular on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media and took off.

These meme’s are problematic because potentially anyone who can use a computer and has an internet connection could compile one with just a bit of training. Sometimes those meme’s are also made by people and organizations who honestly should have known better – New Zealand Labour Party and a meme going around about walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (now Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership). It was made for the 2017 election. Labour are now in office and this misleading meme – it was dubious then, and it is more so now – continues to exist. Labour could take it down right now if they so chose to do so and many have called for them to do so, but I could find it on Facebook now I if I wanted to.

Others exist as well. They range in content. Some are medical advice that has been shot down enough times over that no reputable medical professional would support it. Some are flat out lies about political announcements and policy. Some were made overseas and went viral, somehow catching on in New Zealand even though it was demonstrably obvious that it had nothing to do with this corner of the world.

Most recently I have seen meme’s about the Kilauea volcanic eruption in Hawaii. These memes have been concerning because there have been a few instances of people taking the maps released by Hawaiian state government officials and the United States Geological Survey They have then expanded the map so it looks like a significant part of Hawaii is being inundated by lava and then used the print-screen function to create an image and posted it, ignoring the fact that over 90% of the island is still fully accessible. These do not help because they exaggerate the scale of the problem – yes it is a substantial eruption and yes it is causing major disruption. People then think “oh, the holiday will have to be cancelled, or nobody will want us to visit”.

And there are those that are simply disinformation. They were intentionally written to mislead. Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story. Sometimes political discourse runs into scientific research and the science is dismissed under any one or more of a range political disguises – the sky is falling; fake news; mainstream media – and so on. These are the most destructive as they are deliberate attempts to swing the public discourse down a route that might have large scale adverse results and has been widely discredited by those who have spent their careers thus far – be 4 years or 40 years – researching and making an honest attempt to understand their subject.

Some media outlets are unfortunately complicit in deliberate disinformation campaigns. Russia Today and Fox News are two such outlets, but there are others. Since the advent of mainstream journalism, the principles of journalism have slumped somewhat. It is not to say no good journalists still exist as many do, but corporate media where making a profit seems preferable to upholding the principles of the Fourth Estate, does seem to have an unfortunate propensity for tabloid news ahead of real news. Sometimes unfortunately that transmits as memes.