After launching free trade talks with New Zealand last week, British High Commissioner Laura Clarke spoke to Newsroom’s political editor Sam Sachdeva about what the UK gets out of any deal, diplomacy in the Covid-19 era, and reckoning with our colonial past.

After two and a half years in New Zealand, Laura Clarke clearly knows her audience.

Speaking alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the launch of trade negotiations between the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the British High Commissioner mentioned her hope that whisky producers could win improved access here – drawing a smile from self-confessed single-malt fan Ardern.

Cheaper Lagavulin may be a boon to British exporters (and Kiwi drinkers) but in truth there seems to be little fiscal benefit to the UK from a bilateral FTA, as evidenced by its own modelling which puts its long-term effect on British GDP at close to zero.

Clarke notes the modelling’s estimated $100m benefit to the UK in the long run, but concedes that figure is not significant enough to explain the country’s enthusiasm to work with New Zealand.

“So really what it’s about, it’s about the closeness of this bilateral relationship – such a long-standing relationship – and a desire to strengthen that further.”

An additional motivator is New Zealand’s strengths in trade policy and its reputation for being a keen FTA partner, useful at a time when the UK wants to show it can move on from the EU.

“The idea really is that given the strength of that bilateral relationship…we ought to be able to do a really high-quality, high-ambition free trade agreement that then sets the tone for the UK’s independent trade policy and also, I hope, really sets the standard globally on things like services trade, particularly on digital and sustainability, what you can do on environmental goods.”

Lamb, Brexit complications

While that would seem to frame New Zealand as a chance for British negotiators to warm up for bigger and better deals, Clarke says they are not naive enough to think they will get an easy ride from their Kiwi counterparts.

An obvious sensitivity, articulated by Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker and included in the UK’s strategy document for negotiations, are managing fears from British farmers about a flood of Kiwi agriculture imports (whether real or imagined).

Clarke will not comment in any detail on how the UK will approach particularly delicate sectors like sheep meat, but says: “I would just say that we’ve got high ambition to do a lot of tariff liberalisation. We also recognise that some sectors are going to be more sensitive than others and are going to be slightly more difficult to negotiate.”

Another complication is the need for EU-UK talks on a formal post-Brexit deal to conclude before some topics can be signed off in the New Zealand deal.

Like Parker, Clarke does not want to put any timeframe on when a deal between New Zealand and the UK can be wrapped up, but with the British government adamant it does not want any extension to the Brexit transition period, she says those arrangements should be concluded by the end of 2020, freeing up officials to focus on New Zealand. 

“If it takes a little bit longer to get something much better, then for my money that’s worth it, particularly when we’re looking to do something that is really quite innovative on the trade policy side.”

“For us, home feels a long way way.”

The trade launch came as a welcome change of pace from the Covid-centric nature of Clarke’s work in recent months.

The speed at which New Zealand went into lockdown and closed its borders, coupled with the shock to international aviation, meant thousands of British people were stranded in New Zealand with no easy way to get home. 

The commission’s staff focused first on working with travellers and airlines to get them home through commercial services, before arranging charter flights as it became clear that would not be enough.

While Level 1 has seen a return to something more closely resembling reality, a large part of usual diplomatic work – welcoming political delegations from the UK and visiting Pacific nations – is in stasis, with online alternatives having to suffice.

The UK’s own performance in combating Covid-19 has come in for criticism, with more than 42,000 deaths to date and the country still recording over 1000 new cases a day.

Clarke acknowledges the numbers are high, but cites the UK’s population density and status as an international hub as partial explanations. Nonetheless, it is a difficult time for many at the commission who consider the country home.

“We’ve all got friends and family, I’ve got friends who are doctors and working in the NHS. It’s a really tough situation to be in when you’re in lockdown, or you have significant restrictions for a long time, that’s really hard.

“Then you add…the tensions that bubble up with the Black Lives Matter movement, all that sort of thing and it makes quite a mix. Certainly for us, home just feels a long way away.”

As countries examine the less-heralded qualities of those they have memorialised, New Zealand’s history with its British colonisers is also coming under the microscope. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

With the Black Lives Matter movement has come a push to reconsider monuments to those whose racism – or worse – has been white-washed in the annals of history.

In New Zealand, that predominantly means reexamining the statues of colonisers like English explorer and our Aotearoa’s “discoverer” Captain James Cook – a bust of whom lurks on a plinth in the corner of the British High Commission lobby.

Clarke does not see any role for the UK in such discussions – “What New Zealand does with its statues is basically none of our business,” as she puts it – but it is clear she understands the objections that some hold.

“We all really struggle with racial inequality…and actually the statues are the kind of visual, physical manifestation of an inequity that is replicated across, what is the representation in statues, how is history told?…

“It’s really important that we have honest conversations about the past and the history and the difficult bits as well, and that we learn from it.”

“It’s just so always just try and see things from different perspectives and understand your own privilege and upbringing and perspective.”

Clarke has played a small but significant role in some of those conversations on our shores; last October, she delivered an expression of regret to iwi in Gisborne for the deaths of nine Māori in their first encounters with Cook and his crew.

She calls it a significant moment for the Crown, but just part of a wider effort to strengthen the UK’s relationship with and understanding of Māori, including a project to build ties between iwi and British cultural institutions.

The old memorial at the site of Cook’s landing in Gisborne has been augmented by the addition of a monument to a thousand years of Māori navigation to Aotearoa; the two memorials “kind of sit in dialogue with each other”, Clarke says admiringly.

“In a British school you learn about [Cook] from the ship, of arriving and looking at Aotearoa, looking at New Zealand and you don’t learn it from the beach.

“It’s just so always just try and see things from different perspectives and understand your own privilege and upbringing and perspective…put yourself on the beach.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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