6 May 2017

Foreign Minister Brownlee: A blunt man, but can be a charmer

6:13 am on 6 May 2017

The first thing Gerry Brownlee did as Foreign Minister was to reach out to Israel, in an attempt to repair the fractured relations and break the diplomatic deadlock that has existed since December.

Gerry Brownlee has been Defence Minister and oversaw the Canterbury rebuild.

Gerry Brownlee has been Defence Minister and oversaw the Canterbury rebuild. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

His comments on the New Zealand-sponsored resolution that prompted Israel to withdraw its ambassador show he is willing to cut a different path.

He comes into the job during a tumultuous time - a new administration in the US (although he disagrees with the characterisation of the Trump regime as volatile and unpredictable), chest-beating by North Korea and a post-Brexit realignment of Europe.

Mr Brownlee has been a dominant figure in the National Party caucus, both as the stolid deputy to Don Brash, and an influential member of the Cabinet under John Key, and now Bill English.

Not necessarily known for his tact however - he insulted the entire population of Finland in a speech to Parliament in 2012. More recently he told a farmer in Kaikōura after the November earthquake he was "pissed off" with the man's attitude and comments criticising the government's response.

He also shouldered a huge amount of responsibility and criticism during his time overseeing the Canterbury rebuild: experience in negotiating and problem-solving that will serve him well as Foreign Minister.

As Defence Minister, Mr Brownlee dipped his toe into the diplomatic world, which has included a New Zealand training mission with Australia in Iraq under a US-led coalition.

He is an interesting character - blustery and sharp-tongued, but behind that are a keen intelligence and wit.

He can be blunt, but he can also be charming.

"It's a perfect mix, isn't it," he quips.

Under successive governments the underpinning principle has been an independent foreign policy and being an 'honest broker', which stood New Zealand in good stead when it was campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council.

That will not change under Mr Brownlee, who says New Zealand has a strong voice internationally, proportionate to its population.

"Just constantly being in the appropriate fora, expressing views that are in the best interests of this country but respectfully so compared to others is very important."

But he bridles at the suggestion New Zealand is a friend to all.

Gerry Brownlee in Iraq.

Gerry Brownlee in Iraq. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand has taken a very strong stance against radical Islam and terrorism, he says, without putting the country at loggerheads with nations like Malaysia and Indonesia.

And he says New Zealand is "not at all comfortable" with what is happening in North Korea.

"So we don't attempt to be a friend to everybody - having an independent foreign policy does mean that you are able to make an expression about those who we support, with our own caveats, and very clearly those we don't support."

In this portfolio, arguably more than any other, personal relationships can be crucial, as demonstrated by both Murray McCully and Winston Peters before him.

Condoleezza Rice and Winston Peters.

Condoleezza Rice and Winston Peters. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Mr Peters was a Foreign Minister in the Clark administration and got on famously well with then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Trying to think of something that did not involve fishing or golf, Mr Peters arranged a private fashion show from the local designer Adrienne Winkelmann, which Ms Rice later told him was the nicest thing anyone had done for her during her time as Secretary of State.

He also struck up a warm friendship with Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, cemented by the discovery of two things they both liked. Mr Peters was not prepared to say what they were.

But he did reveal his trick for dealing with difficult people he was meeting for the first time - compliment them on their career and ask 'what is the secret of your success?'.

Mr Brownlee will also be well aware that close personal relationships can help to smooth the way when disagreements occur. Making connections with key New Zealand friends and allies will be top of his list in the coming months, including navigating the new relationship with the US.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Rex Tillerson Photo: AFP

But he is not fazed, saying as Energy Minister he was in a meeting some years ago with the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who at time was chief executive of oil company Exxon.

"I found him to be extremely knowledgeable about New Zealand and extremely respectful of the laws that we had ... and if that short experience is translated into the way he deals with other countries - and I think you can see that in some of the early work that he's done - then I think there are grounds to be optimistic."

There are tensions brewing closer to home with New Zealand's only official ally - Australia.

In his first meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Mr Brownlee had to seek assurances about the treatment of New Zealand citizens in Australia.

Australia has agreed to better communication if it intends introducing any further policies that would further undermine New Zealanders' entitlements.

Mr Brownlee struck a conciliatory tone after his discussion with Ms Bishop but may well come under pressure to take a stronger line with Australia if it continues down a road even the New Zealand government sees as breaching a long-standing agreement to treat each other's citizens as their own.

Whatever approach he decides to take as a new minister, however, it may end up being a short stint, with plum jobs like the Foreign Minister potentially up for grabs once the dust has settled after the September election.

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