Ardern springs surprise with Mahuta now in charge of ‘Pacific reset’

Nanaia Mahuta
New NZ Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta ... needs more time to get her head around China's more aggressive presence in the Pacific. Image: Dom Thomas/RNZ

By Jane Patterson, RNZ Political Editor

The bolt out of the blue in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s new cabinet is Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Affairs Minister.

The job became vacant with New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters out of Parliament and the role is as important as ever.

Mahuta’s appointment – the first indigenous Māori woman to become Foreign Minister – comes as such a surprise mainly because it is a portfolio where she has had little to no experience.

Ardern cites her previous role as associate trade and export growth minister, but it is a major step up to become Foreign Minister.

It was a “natural decision” for her to take, says Ardern who says she is struck by Mahuta’s ability to “build fantastic relationships, very, very quickly – one of the key jobs in a foreign affairs role”.

Mahuta will need to complement those backroom skills with some hard work; she will have plenty of official advice and can call on the experience of colleagues like David Parker, but not necessarily access to the former minister Winston Peters.

The portfolio will only become more challenging as the world grapples with covid and the geopolitical tussle between the United States and China.

Deft hand needed
New Zealand will need a deft hand to navigate through the coming years, and someone who can harness relationships with New Zealand’s current and potential trading partners, and with the Five Eyes alliance.

Her focus will be on the “multilateral, rules-based system” New Zealand relies on in such turbulent times, and the ‘Pacific reset’ started under Winston Peters.

When asked about his tenure, Mahuta said Peters had made a “huge contribution” and had shown that if you get the relationships right, New Zealand can benefit.

In her first media conference, she was asked about China’s more aggressive presence in the Pacific but said she would need a bit more time to get her head around many of the “substantial issues”.

“I’m still getting my feet under the table,” she told reporters.

“I’m inheriting the portfolio from a predecessor who had views and I’ll form my views once I’ve read the BIM [Briefing to Incoming Ministers] and received some advice.”

Much of the foreign affairs load will be taken by the Prime Minister herself, and giving Mahuta the portfolio, when the job will mainly be New Zealand-based, frees up other senior ministers who could have been in the running, with big workloads, and major reforms to get on with.

The key messages on foreign affairs will come from the ninth floor, and with Labour holding Foreign Affairs the potential for differing positions should be removed, compared with arrangments in the last government.

This article is republished by the Pacific Media Centre under a partnership agreement with RNZ.

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