Chris Carter’s excoriation of the Key government on whaling is rubbished by official MFAT papers showing similar negotiations when Labour was the government and Carter whaling Minister

Here’s a cross word clue: 1 across, a 9-letter word that starts with H _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ .

Earlier I criticised the strident political stance taken by Labour spokesperson Chris Carter and partisan blog The Standard on IWC whaling negotiations. You can get a flavour of it from the headlines of Carter’s posts, and this snippet:

In January the Prime Minister … blithely announced a grand new initiative to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean Concerned that the PM was demonstrating no real understanding of the polarised politics of whaling, officials rushed to ask Key what his proposal was. After a bit of too-ing [sic] and fro-ing the policy, apparently, Mr Key struck on was legalising limited commercial whaling. ... Lo and behold our representative to the International Whaling Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was dispatched to Florida to make Keys vision a reality

But documents released to Pundit under the Official Information Act confirm that diplomatic talks commenced and were actively pushed on Labour’s watch, by Carter and Phil Goff, as the former Ministers of Conservation and Foreign Affairs, on terms so similar that if you blinked you’d miss the difference.

Cabinet papers I requested — requested 8 weeks ago, in a statutory timeframe that is supposed to be 20 working days – are still to come. If they arrive in time, I will add notes on them to this thread. Funnily enough, the reason for the delay (as explained to me) is that, as Cabinet papers from a previous administration, Opposition leave had to be sought to release them.

But the gist of them is outlined in material I have already received: “As set out in the Cabinet paper on New Zealand’s Strategy on Whales for the 58th Meeting of the International Whaling Commission … New Zealand’s strategy should continue to be for the absolute protection of whales …” and “In 2006, Cabinet agreed that New Zealand’s policy on whales should continue to be for their absolute protection. This includes resisting efforts to lift the current moratorium on commercial whaling …”.

Some documents and parts of documents have been withheld, on grounds of international relations, and negotiating sensitivity. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials tell me they will release more of this information in due course, once there is no longer a need to protect New Zealand’s negotiating position in the diplomatic discussions that are still live.

Nevertheless, I have a decent-sized bundle of material from the term of the Labour government that rebuts allegations New Zealand has reversed its policy, and is sending damaging mixed signals. There is no reversal, and if signals are mixed, that is not new.

The papers make plain what I expected: that New Zealand does not support resumption of commercial whaling. But they also say that, if commercial whaling was to resume, it would need to be robustly regulated and managed. Therefore, despite New Zealand’s strongly anti-whaling position, between 2005 and 2008 it was actively participating in “negotiations on a revised management scheme, which would provide a regime to govern commercial whaling if it ever resumed”.

In other words, if the IWC was ever to lift the moratorium (a real risk, given its changing dynamics), the revised management scheme was a contingency plan, in case the worst was to happen, against New Zealand’s will.

Although these negotiations had been ongoing for the past decade or so, they were actively furthered under the Labour government, to the point where responsible Ministers Carter and Goff rejected official advice to take a back seat, and opted for a leadership role in the diplomatic engagement process the same process, the closing stages of which caused the furore in recent months.

According to an MFAT communique of July 25, 2005: “The main new development from IWC57 was the resolution agreeing to consider a high-level diplomatic conference if needed to resolve outstanding issues on an RMS … As noted by Minister Carter in comments to the media, New Zealand is prepared in principle to support the idea of a diplomatic conference …”. You remember the RMS — the revised management scheme, that would govern commercial whaling if it ever resumed.

A bit over six months later, Ministers had warmed up to the idea quite a lot. An email dated February 20, 2006 records: “I had a call from Chris Carter’s office … about the submission on the approach the delegation should take at the Cambridge meeting. The Minister has ticked off on all the recommendations except the one that says the delegation should not push the idea of a diplomatic conference. A briefing to the Minister of Foreign Affairs dated February 10, 2006, annotated and signed by Phil Goff, includes this response to officials’ advice:

It is recommended that you:

3. agree that … New Zealand does not support a resumption of commercial whaling. Nonetheless, if commercial whaling were to resume, we would want it to be regulated through a strong and robust RMS … commercial whaling under an RMS would be incompatible with current scientific whaling and … an RMS needs to address this issue … [Yes]

4. agree that New Zealand should not lead calls for a diplomatic conference to discuss the future of the IWC … [No]

By contrast, New Zealand was distancing itself from the option of litigation in the International Court of Justice. On May 19, 2005, referring to reports suggesting that New Zealand might be planning to do this, an MFAT communique records:

This reporting derives from comments made by the Minister of Conservation and co-leader of the Green Party (Jeanette Fitzsimons) on Morning Report … In fact, the Minister of Conservation did not refer directly to the ICJ option. What he said was that New Zealand is prepared to explore any avenue to stop Japan’s whaling activities. The suggestion that New Zealand should take Japan to the ICJ was made by Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Bear in mind that this was a communication issued to clarify New Zealand’s position. Care would therefore have been taken, you might expect, to ensure that the position conveyed was accurate.

So when it says “New Zealand is prepared to explore any avenue to stop Japan‘s whaling activities”, that would in fact mean “any avenue”, right? And a theme running through these papers is New Zealand’s key objective of seeking an end to, or IWC control over, special permit or scientific whaling activities — as a significant and growing part of “Japan’s whaling activities” and “a loophole which has allowed a significant level of whaling to take place despite the moratorium on commercial whaling”.

Now of course, former Ministers Carter and Goff can stand up, hands on hearts, and say nothing resembling the present proposal under discussion was on the negotiating table during their tenure. And they are bound to be right, because they were responsible near the start of the process, whereas National Minister McCully is overseeing the sharp end of it.

But notwithstanding their reiterated opposition to whaling, these papers show that there was active Labour government participation and leadership in parallel lines of discussion about killing whales, not confined to the revised management scheme.

A briefing to then-Foreign Minister Phil Goff (the lead Minister) dated May 13, 2005, seeking approval for New Zealand’s approach to the upcoming annual meeting of the IWC, and again signed off by him, records: “Last year New Zealand sponsored a resolution (drafted in consultation with NGOs) which was adopted … calling for a further study of whale killing methods with a view to reducing unnecessary suffering and time to death. Since then, New Zealand has co-chaired a specialist group … which has … drafted minimum conditions for the killing of whales. A May 12, 2006 briefing includes reference to an official member of the delegation whose role was “Participating in Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues Workshop”.

In other words, we don’t support whale killing, but we were happy to collaborate in some detail about, and indeed lead discussions on, how to kill them.

There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s a harm minimisation approach in a less than perfect world. But it’s kind of the same as saying: we don’t support whale killing, but we’re happy to talk about the numbers, if it would guarantee much lower numbers ... isn’t it?

Comments (11)

by Graeme Edgeler on May 04, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

Cabinet papers I requested — requested 8 weeks ago, in a statutory timeframe that is supposed to be 20 working days – are still to come. If they arrive in time, I will add notes on them to this thread. Funnily enough, the reason for the delay (as explained to me) is that, as Cabinet papers from a previous administration, Opposition leave had to be sought to release them.

Well, I'm pretty sure that's not true (or if it's true, it's illegal). Hav you thought about heading to the Ombudsman?

by Graeme Edgeler on May 04, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

And further to my last comment, see paragraph 8.84 of the Cabinet Office Manual.

(HT: Idiot/Savant)

by Claire Browning on May 04, 2010
Claire Browning

I hadn't heard of it either, despite some familiarity with the Act. I deduce that it is an MFAT administrative practice, as opposed to, you know, the law.

Whatever the process is, I suspect they may have fumbled it a bit, because we had one conversation about running stuff past the opposition (which I made some grumpy noises about, for obvious reasons); then another one after the [extended] deadline had expired, in which it was unclear whether the hold up was with opposition / Cabinet office / both; then I got a letter that says: "As previously indicated to you, several documents you have requested are covered by the convention on access to Cabinet records of a previous administration. Those documents are still being considered by the Cabinet Office".

I made passing reference to the Ombudsman, and was assured that wouldn't be necessary, everything was in hand ... so just holding fire, temporarily. But I did find it, shall we say, convenient that the confusion and alleged exigencies of pulling together the response lasted long enough to get us past the latest round of diplomacy (and attendant clarification of the government's position).

by Claire Browning on May 04, 2010
Claire Browning

PS. Our comments crossed. Graeme's link to the Cabinet Manual explains all.

by Raymond A Francis on May 04, 2010
Raymond A Francis

Excellent work Claire, I take back (most) of my mutterings on your Ecan stance

by Claire Browning on May 05, 2010
Claire Browning

Delighted to hear it, Raymond. Bit puzzled, though: are you reading the same posts I'm writing? Did you mean the "ECan stance" that drove no fewer than five Pundit posts to date, four of them mine, and four of them posted in the fortnight when it was all happening? Can you point us to any other non-Canterbury media outlet / blogger / journalist giving as sustained and detailed attention to the issues (bearing in mind that it takes some of us non-Cantabrians a little time and help to understand exactly what the issues are)? Perhaps you're referring to the one post, that was more about the Greens than ECan, criticising them for (a) over-hyping a peripheral point, and (b) omitting to apply the same ruler to themselves. Or to some expressions of ambivalence about ECan (as opposed to Canterbury) -- but it does not follow from that, that the government has not acted outrageously in all sorts of ways, and I might not have finished with them yet.

by Claire Browning on May 05, 2010
Claire Browning

Can you point us to any other non-Canterbury media outlet / blogger / journalist giving as sustained and detailed attention to the issues ... ?

Except No Right Turn, who's done lots.

by Chris Trotter on May 06, 2010
Chris Trotter

You appear to specialise, Claire, in constructing elaborate journalistic platforms out of evidential twigs, mounting them with a triumphal flourish, falling straight through them and landing with an ignominious thump on your backside (as you did over ECan).

This posting is yet another fine example of what can only be described as "a very peculiar practice".

by Claire Browning on May 06, 2010
Claire Browning

How many of the official papers have you seen, Chris?

I was quite happy, on the whole, with how the ECan debate evolved here on Pundit. And you don't have to read my posts; since they seem to annoy you so much, maybe it would be better for us both if you didn't. I don't read many of yours.

If I'm mistaken, I guess chapter and verse will come out on that. The subtlety of the policy distinctions doesn't show on the record I've seen to date, is all I'm saying, and if they are indeed that subtle, Chris Carter's politicised line, bordering on abusive, is a hard one to defend.

Meantime, since you're the only person here fronting, apparently wanting to explain the policy distinctions to me: which bit of the post did you think was wrong, specifically? 

by Claire Browning on May 08, 2010
Claire Browning

This morning I've referred the matter of the Cabinet papers to the Ombudsmen.

Bearing in mind that this is two weeks outside the extended deadline (which was itself extended by two weeks); an extra week since I received the balance of the material; only "several documents" are involved; and Cabinet documents are typically sub-10 pages and succinct, it should not be taking this long to release them.

Indeed, I would have thought that if any aspect of them rebutted this post, or endorsed Labour's position, Mr Carter (or others on his behalf) would have been anxious to get them out into the light of day, to clear up any confusion.

by Claire Browning on May 27, 2010
Claire Browning

The remaining papers, which came yesterday, confirm much of the post, and these aspects in particular:

  • That, as outlined above, New Zealand’s policy should continue to be for the absolute protection of whales,
  • That New Zealand had, however, “been a strong supporter of efforts to negotiate an RMA that ensures whaling is regulated in an effective and transparent manner if the moratorium on commercial whaling is ever lifted. This position has been without prejudice to New Zealand’s position that there should be no resumption of commercial whaling”,
  • That the option of taking a case against Japan to the ICJ or some other legal forum was not supported by the government, based on their expert advice. The idea had been resisted by Geoffrey Palmer. His legal advice, based on MFAT research, was that “the prospects of winning on the merits of the case were slim” and “New Zealand should not seek to take a legal case against Japan”.

They clarify an important matter that needs refinement, as follows.

After the briefing in which Ministers disagreed with officials’ advice, but before the matter went to Cabinet for sign off on that year's meeting strategy, without anything on the record to explain what happened in the interim, Ministers became persuaded of  the official view. In May 2006, in a joint Cabinet paper from Winston Peters and Chris Carter, the paper identified a diplomatic conference as a  “high risk strategy”. Cabinet agreed that the concept should not be discarded, but the prospects were not promising, and it was not an option that New Zealand should be pushing “at this stage”.

But then by 2007, in this publicly available material  here (Chris Carter press release) and here (Chair’s Report from Anchorage), New Zealand represented by Sir Geoffrey was right in the forefront of two key events in the genesis of the Small Working Group on the Future of the IWC:

  • chairing, with Mr Carter's blessing, an international symposium to analyse options for the conservation of whales, and ideas which might resolve the current impasse at the International Whaling Commission over scientific whaling and other issues,
  • addressing IWC59 in Anchorage, reporting back from the symposium and recommending the establishment of a representative working group to try to find common ground (what would become the Small Working Group).

My (semi-educated) guess would be that between briefing (February) and Cabinet paper (May), further official advice either withheld from this request or delivered in person persuaded Ministers to the official view temporarily, but following IWC58, matters moved on again, and either the advice changed, or the original Ministerial view prevailed.

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