Three Fs for Winston Peters, our fledgling foreign envoy

Things in threes have a pleasing alliteration. So, for example, it is convenient to mark the modern media by three Cs: celebrity, confrontation and crime.

That explains why Christine Rankin (a fourth C) was a headline hit a few years back: celebrity status; confrontation in court with ministers; and, if not crime, allegations of impropriety.

Take another C, China, whose chiefs conjure up slogans in twos, threes, fours or more. Missing from the litany are the three Chinas. Hong Kong has been reincorporated. Taiwan, even though only briefly a province, is to be reclaimed, recovered and recolonised.

The Labour party has its three Cs: collaboration, cooperation and collegiality. It cold-shoulders a fourth C, competition. The world is supposed to be cuddly, cosy and comforting. Hence for 94 years Labour has striven to commandeer, contain and constrain capitalism.

In fact, Labour showed in the election it can be highly competitive, combative and even curmudgeonly. It got down and dirty and dusted down a down-and-dirty National. State house tenants were scared into voting with warnings of evictions if Don Brash was Prime Minister.

Directly afterward, of course, Helen Clark talked up consensus. That’s a really top Labour C word, nearly as revered as community and consultation. Coopt the language and you coopt the people is the theory.

One cooptee is Tim Groser, former star trade negotiator in Geneva. Vilified by Clark and outgoing Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton when his casting high on National’s list was announced, Groser is to accompany Sutton to the next big ministerial meeting of the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation in Hong Kong next week.

This makes sense. Groser has many international contacts at very high level and high standing among the world’s best at the craft. So surely he can do good in Hong Kong, even as a supernumerary sidekick and even if there are long memories in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade whence he came.

Which brings us to Sutton himself.

He, too, is highly thought of offshore. He attends small-group meetings where the real work is done (to the extent that any is done in this round’s meandering muddle). Entry there is by virtue of personal standing, not country position, except for the very big countries.

Sutton leaves for the back benches after Hong Kong. New Zealand loses its place in small-group meetings.

Set aside the waste of a good man. Set aside the conundrum Clark has set herself finding him something to do commensurate with his contribution.

Focus on the fact that the next 12 months are crunch time for the Doha, the very time when this pinprick of a country, deeply dependent on trade, needs every last little bit of access to the inner sanctums to push its case.

Phil Goff, who has been one of our most able Foreign Ministers, has the skills and ability to get that access — in time. But “in time” is not soon enough. Clark’s judgment deserted her in dumping Sutton.

Of course, she had a double problem of ruffled feathers. Winston Peters had to be accommodated as Foreign Minister and Goff had to be compensated for losing that bauble of baubles, the foreign ministry. So Goff has all the international portfolios except the formal title.

In short, Goff is the do-er of our foreign dealings and Peters is the be-er.

Sounds tidy — if being Foreign Minister is just ceremonials, a sort of mini-Governor-General. But Foreign Ministers do a lot more than ceremonials.

That means keeping a clear head, absorbing complex and subtle briefs and conducting complicated conversations with crafty counterparts who stand tall in their own governments. What the Foreign Minister says matters.

It matters at home, too. Which requires a very different Peters from the one in our media.

His usual method of addressing questions — I use “address” in its empty parliamentary sense, which does not equate with “answer” — has been to berate the interviewer and/or the media generally and/or commentators. A classic example was with Linda Clark on Radio New Zealand on 9 November.

Peters also laces his speeches with diatribes about the media. He plays the victim, over and over.

This was what he did on November 20 at his party’s AGM, where he talked of “treason”. The written version of the speech was passable. The spoken version was a sad travesty. Real foreign ministers go for gravitas.

Last week, after Clark had a word with him, Peters pleaded a new leaf and sought a second chance. That will need three Fs no longer in plentiful supply for him in the media: forbearance, forgiveness and face-value good faith.

Honour is earned, not bestowed with title. Sutton earned his honour and has been heaved aside. I have argued, perhaps stupidly, that Peters can do the job. If he is to vindicate that judgment, he will need heaps of humility, honest effort and hard work.

And who will be monitoring and marking him with concern, consternation and clear eyes? That hard-working big C, Clark.