Independence is National's new foreign policy guide

The rise of John Key and Kevin Rudd are eerily alike — even, now, to owning up to an out-of-character jaunt to a strip joint. Shock, horror. The traders in the Alex cartoon, chronicle of life in Key’s London financial markets, seem to do half their business (so to speak) in lap dancing bars.

Perhaps Key and Rudd are short of red corpuscles. Sir Robert Muldoon, a man with bags of the said corpuscles until drink got the better of them, paid visits to famous establishments in Paris (one of them with a present-day MP in tow). Muldoon had affairs, too.

Key seems fixedly married and to like his children. Family does seem to mean to him a unitary group.

Worse for Labour, needing a way to bend its trend line up and National’s down, Key doesn’t seem to have a miasmic past. Pete Hodgson’s bottle bomb last week bounced off. Everyone I have met who worked with Key speaks well of him, which in a way is a bit alarming.

Of course, if you spread around $40 million some of it is likely to end up in sticky places. Maybe a real shock-horror, as distinct from last week’s tabloid property squib, lurks in a closet in his Parnell hut. If so, for Labour, sliding down its trend, it had better be soon and big because National’s polling is giving it enormous leads over Labour on economic management just as the economy turns the screws on voters.

Labour’s real problem with Key is that he is less an opponent than a successor: if you are tiring of Labour, you can have something not dangerously different. Key will (if Prime Minister after 2008) simply take over from Helen Clark and put his own daubs on a now broadly agreed policy canvass.

Why is this?

In part the continuity flows from Clark’s government having rubbed many of the rough edges off the economic and social policies it inherited, to voters’ general approval. The focus now is principally management. That even goes for tax policy, though there is more light between the two parties on that than on most policies.

In part continuity flows also from New Zealanders’ now secure sense of independence. From the 1970s onward and most noisily in the 1980s Clark’s generation made this country independent in the true sense — that is, as a state of mind.

Key’s generation is automatically independent and Key is thoroughly of that generation. Portraying him as a would-be Bush warrior, as Labour was trying to do until the Air New Zealand blowback, cuts no ice.

Hence National’s foreign and defence policy shift over the past couple of years. The lingering wistfulness for a return to a semblance of the old kith-and-kin “where-Washington-goes-we-go” Anzus alliance has disappeared from mainstream National thinking. In Key’s words, National is conscious of historical links “but we have moved on”.

That will be evident in a forthcoming discussion paper. Four men of the independence generation drafted it: Tim Groser, Wayne Mapp, John Hayes and shadow foreign minister Murray McCully. v The paper, as McCully prefigured on Saturday’s Agenda TV show, will spell out an independent external policy.

“Independent” is the key word (and explicitly the Key word) because from that follows the paper’s accent on multilateral principles (the United Nations, etc) as appropriate for a small, independent country. National had already deemed multilateralism appropriate for trade and climate change, the other great external challenges.

It adds up to “bipartisan”. Key (overlooking his block on the trans-Tasman therapeutics agency which is now starting to cost this country’s medical drugs exporters to Australia heaps) says New Zealand should be “viewed externally through one lens”.

That doesn’t mean slavish adherence to the Clark doctrine. A Key ministry would want a tighter focus of both aid and military peacekeeping on the South Pacific neighbourhood. A promised White Paper defence “stocktake” would keep the “niche” approach but reset the spending level (maybe even upwards), probably go for a cut-down version of a balanced force (without fighters but with frigates) and push closer inter-operability with Australian forces.

The approach has been canvassed by Key, McCully and Groser in Washington and by McCully with foreign ambassadors here.

In one sense National’s shift is a tribute to Clark’s intelligent, canny and able conduct of foreign policy (barring a lapse or two), which is likely to be her enduring legacy in the history books. She has led consensus at home and won respect abroad, including now from the United States.

But National’s shift is also a consequence of this nascent nation’s independent state of mind. Forelock-tugging doesn’t wash now.

Will National also take independence on a step? Maybe. Quietly, some National MPs are preparing a plan to ditch the monarchy on Queen Elizabeth’s death.

Clark doesn’t dare go there and most Nationalists are not ready for it. But if Key gets to be Prime Minister and lasts as long as Clark, he may well instal our first president.

That’s independence.