Bill English has the chance to be heroic without indulging his inner Hugh Grant. He can be on the right side of history, China and even Ronald Reagan, if he seizes the moment
Love Actually isn't real life. As appalled as we all are my the strongman behaviour of Donald Trump in his first week in office, when he calls Bill English in the coming days, this isn't the time for the new Prime Minister to indulge his inner Hugh Grant.
Not that the conservative, studied English is likely to make some heroically bold statement in the face of a demagogue. Remember, when he took the job in December, he announced he as keeping Murray McCully in the job as Foreign Minister for a few more months so as to give himself time to bone up on statesmanship. Let's hope English learns fast and takes good advice.
While it would certainly make his name internationally, some dramatic speech about America the bully – as the new British PM played by Hugh Grant made in Love Actually – is not his or his party's style. Neither is it English's job to martyr New Zealand at this stage. He has tipped his hat to our independent foreign policy already by calling Trump's policy wrong, when Australia's Malcolm Turnbull wouldn't do anything other than say it's an issue for the US. Still, America's deputy then, Aussie? No lesson learnt there then.
Yet as a man who has spent the last few years investing in targeted measures to society's problems, English will have little truck with Trump's scatter-gun and dangerous ban on all refugees for 120 days, Syrian refugees indefinitely, and the entry into the US of anyone born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
There are better and more coordinated ways to respond, without accepting his demagogeury as normal. (And one more clever response New Zealand could make. More of that later). The simple fact is that on this ban we can be critical in the safe knowledge most of the countries of the world share our concern and are likely to act. We're not going out on our own as we did with our nuclear-free policy; indeed, this isn't about us. That's no excuse not to make a stand, just recognition that we can voice our opposition in a chorus, not as a solo act, as American and global institutions go about taking the fight to this wicked policy.
English rightly said Trump's ban on people arriving from some predominantly Muslim countries was "not the New Zealand way" and, importantly, said all New Zealand's refugees were welcome (even if it is only 1000 a year). A more important statement came from Germany's Angela Merkel, stating her "regret" at Trump's move and reminding him that under the international refugee conventions, signatories are required to take in victims of war. That rightly suggests a united way ahead.
Yet having said that, English must still tread warily. Grant's speech in the film was a populist reaction to Tony Blair's percieved cronyism towards George Bush during the Iraq War (reportedly cheered at in British theatres).
Blair's reputation is now laregly defined by his terrible missteps in that war. Meanwhile, here in New Zealand we tend to bask in the decision made by Helen Clark's government not to take part in the coalition of the willing, because it lacked a UN mandate. That war is a lesson about the importance of being on the right side of history. For all that English has been in parliament since Phil Collins and Vanilla Ice were making number one hits, New Zealanders are only just getting to know him as Prime Minister and they will be looking to see what he stands for. And what he plays politics with.
So as we do regularly with China, it's important that while we remain diplomatic, English expresses concerns about such awkward topics from the get go.
Indeed, China must loom large in any consideration of how English plays the Trump card. I've done any number of interviews with PMs and Foreign Minister in the past decade asking how we choose between the US and China, should it ever come to that. The question was always shrugged off as one for the never-never. Well, the never-never is just about in view now and when it comes to trade wars or the South China Sea, New Zealand may have some choosing to do between two bully states.
The one disappointing limitation for English is that even if he wanted to get on his high horse, he may look a little wobbly doing so. One of the lesser noted implications of Trump's ban is that it cuts America's intended refugee quota for 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000. That's around 0.015 percent population growth.
New Zealand's 1000 refugees this year – only raised after intense pressure – means we're only taking 0.022 percent of our population. So we're little better.
Perhaps English's best political response to this ban, would be to use the moment to both show a caring side to his government distinct from the Key years, signal an opposition to Trump without offering insult and undermine his opponents. How? By doubling New Zealand's refugee on the spot. Much as Clark did with the Tampa, he could say, 'hey America, send us 1000 of those refugees you have already vetted and were due to head your way'. John Howard was thankful; perhaps Trump would be too.
One interesting aside for you. Seven countries are now subject to Trump's ban. Coincidentally, America dropped bombs on seven countries last year (a conservative total of 26,171). Those countries? Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. So switch Iran for Pakistan, and America's list of those it fears is remarkably consisten, even allowing for the change of president. As flawed as the policy is, it does suggest that considerations beyond where Trump does business influenced this list.
That, of course, in no way excuses the muddle-headed ban. Indeed, this executive order only confirms what I've said since the election; those who were confident that Trump would be reined in must now realise what a danger he is and not normalise him.
Given that, the world should heed one line of Grant's movie speech; the one where he says that bullies only respond to strength and so from now on other countries will stand up for themselves more strongly against US hegemony. That happens when you go from shining light on a hill to burning pyre.
An example of that fall can be seen in another famous speech. The one given by another dangerously maverick, if less dictatorial, president in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. That day, Ronald Reagan, said:
...But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same--still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly... Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men.
Reagan quoted the marvellous words of the great George Marshall 40 years earlier. And perhaps these are the words English could use in his phone call:
"Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos."
Reagan went on to say:
After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.