Official information exposes Carter on whaling

Chris Carter’s excoriation of the Key government on whaling is rubbished by official MFAT papers showing similar negotiations when Labour was the government and Carter whaling Minister

Here’s a cross word clue: 1 across, a 9-letter word that starts with H _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ .

Earlier I criticised the strident political stance taken by Labour spokesperson Chris Carter and partisan blog The Standard on IWC whaling negotiations. You can get a flavour of it from the headlines of Carter’s posts, and this snippet:

In January the Prime Minister … blithely announced a grand new initiative to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean Concerned that the PM was demonstrating no real understanding of the polarised politics of whaling, officials rushed to ask Key what his proposal was. After a bit of too-ing [sic] and fro-ing the policy, apparently, Mr Key struck on was legalising limited commercial whaling. ... Lo and behold our representative to the International Whaling Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was dispatched to Florida to make Keys vision a reality

But documents released to Pundit under the Official Information Act confirm that diplomatic talks commenced and were actively pushed on Labour’s watch, by Carter and Phil Goff, as the former Ministers of Conservation and Foreign Affairs, on terms so similar that if you blinked you’d miss the difference.

Cabinet papers I requested — requested 8 weeks ago, in a statutory timeframe that is supposed to be 20 working days – are still to come. If they arrive in time, I will add notes on them to this thread. Funnily enough, the reason for the delay (as explained to me) is that, as Cabinet papers from a previous administration, Opposition leave had to be sought to release them.

But the gist of them is outlined in material I have already received: “As set out in the Cabinet paper on New Zealand’s Strategy on Whales for the 58th Meeting of the International Whaling Commission … New Zealand’s strategy should continue to be for the absolute protection of whales …” and “In 2006, Cabinet agreed that New Zealand’s policy on whales should continue to be for their absolute protection. This includes resisting efforts to lift the current moratorium on commercial whaling …”.

Some documents and parts of documents have been withheld, on grounds of international relations, and negotiating sensitivity. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials tell me they will release more of this information in due course, once there is no longer a need to protect New Zealand’s negotiating position in the diplomatic discussions that are still live.

Nevertheless, I have a decent-sized bundle of material from the term of the Labour government that rebuts allegations New Zealand has reversed its policy, and is sending damaging mixed signals. There is no reversal, and if signals are mixed, that is not new.

The papers make plain what I expected: that New Zealand does not support resumption of commercial whaling. But they also say that, if commercial whaling was to resume, it would need to be robustly regulated and managed. Therefore, despite New Zealand’s strongly anti-whaling position, between 2005 and 2008 it was actively participating in “negotiations on a revised management scheme, which would provide a regime to govern commercial whaling if it ever resumed”.

In other words, if the IWC was ever to lift the moratorium (a real risk, given its changing dynamics), the revised management scheme was a contingency plan, in case the worst was to happen, against New Zealand’s will.

Although these negotiations had been ongoing for the past decade or so, they were actively furthered under the Labour government, to the point where responsible Ministers Carter and Goff rejected official advice to take a back seat, and opted for a leadership role in the diplomatic engagement process the same process, the closing stages of which caused the furore in recent months.

According to an MFAT communique of July 25, 2005: “The main new development from IWC57 was the resolution agreeing to consider a high-level diplomatic conference if needed to resolve outstanding issues on an RMS … As noted by Minister Carter in comments to the media, New Zealand is prepared in principle to support the idea of a diplomatic conference …”. You remember the RMS — the revised management scheme, that would govern commercial whaling if it ever resumed.

A bit over six months later, Ministers had warmed up to the idea quite a lot. An email dated February 20, 2006 records: “I had a call from Chris Carter’s office … about the submission on the approach the delegation should take at the Cambridge meeting. The Minister has ticked off on all the recommendations except the one that says the delegation should not push the idea of a diplomatic conference. A briefing to the Minister of Foreign Affairs dated February 10, 2006, annotated and signed by Phil Goff, includes this response to officials’ advice:

It is recommended that you:

3. agree that … New Zealand does not support a resumption of commercial whaling. Nonetheless, if commercial whaling were to resume, we would want it to be regulated through a strong and robust RMS … commercial whaling under an RMS would be incompatible with current scientific whaling and … an RMS needs to address this issue … [Yes]

4. agree that New Zealand should not lead calls for a diplomatic conference to discuss the future of the IWC … [No]

By contrast, New Zealand was distancing itself from the option of litigation in the International Court of Justice. On May 19, 2005, referring to reports suggesting that New Zealand might be planning to do this, an MFAT communique records:

This reporting derives from comments made by the Minister of Conservation and co-leader of the Green Party (Jeanette Fitzsimons) on Morning Report … In fact, the Minister of Conservation did not refer directly to the ICJ option. What he said was that New Zealand is prepared to explore any avenue to stop Japan’s whaling activities. The suggestion that New Zealand should take Japan to the ICJ was made by Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Bear in mind that this was a communication issued to clarify New Zealand’s position. Care would therefore have been taken, you might expect, to ensure that the position conveyed was accurate.

So when it says “New Zealand is prepared to explore any avenue to stop Japan‘s whaling activities”, that would in fact mean “any avenue”, right? And a theme running through these papers is New Zealand’s key objective of seeking an end to, or IWC control over, special permit or scientific whaling activities — as a significant and growing part of “Japan’s whaling activities” and “a loophole which has allowed a significant level of whaling to take place despite the moratorium on commercial whaling”.

Now of course, former Ministers Carter and Goff can stand up, hands on hearts, and say nothing resembling the present proposal under discussion was on the negotiating table during their tenure. And they are bound to be right, because they were responsible near the start of the process, whereas National Minister McCully is overseeing the sharp end of it.

But notwithstanding their reiterated opposition to whaling, these papers show that there was active Labour government participation and leadership in parallel lines of discussion about killing whales, not confined to the revised management scheme.

A briefing to then-Foreign Minister Phil Goff (the lead Minister) dated May 13, 2005, seeking approval for New Zealand’s approach to the upcoming annual meeting of the IWC, and again signed off by him, records: “Last year New Zealand sponsored a resolution (drafted in consultation with NGOs) which was adopted … calling for a further study of whale killing methods with a view to reducing unnecessary suffering and time to death. Since then, New Zealand has co-chaired a specialist group … which has … drafted minimum conditions for the killing of whales. A May 12, 2006 briefing includes reference to an official member of the delegation whose role was “Participating in Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues Workshop”.

In other words, we don’t support whale killing, but we were happy to collaborate in some detail about, and indeed lead discussions on, how to kill them.

There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s a harm minimisation approach in a less than perfect world. But it’s kind of the same as saying: we don’t support whale killing, but we’re happy to talk about the numbers, if it would guarantee much lower numbers ... isn’t it?