Nobody has been more surprised by just how much business has been conducted online during Covid times than the trade minister and his negotiating teams.

“We pretty much negotiated the whole UK free trade agreement online with some meetings in person at the final stage of the process,’’ Damien O’Connor told Newsroom.

While excited by the prospect of reconnecting with counterparts for the first time in two years, he says the varying approaches countries are taking to reopen have been challenging.

“Variable, muddled and confusing was the approach that all the different countries were taking from our first travel to Singapore with very strict protocol to muddled protocol in the UK.’’

O’Connor says many countries are now dealing with reintroducing restrictions as infection runs rife and the threat of new variants means there’s never any real certainty about anything.

“I have a unique style and most of my colleagues including the Prime Minister respect that, and of course they can take the piss out of me when they want, it doesn’t worry me.’’
– Damien O’Connor

While for the most part New Zealand’s trade talks have seamlessly shifted to Zoom – the European Union free trade agreement in Brussels earlier this month was another largely negotiated online – Covid has also reinforced some countries’ unwillingness to consider free trade at all.

“We saw increasing protectionism prior to Covid, and some have used it as an example to hunker down and look inward, rather than build on connections with trade partners.

“Obviously supply chains and communication, the restrictions on businesspeople to move, has meant the normal flow of people and goods has been interrupted. Some countries have seen that as a justification for more on-shoring, or friend-shoring – that’s dealing with a limited number of countries,’’ O’Connor says.

“So, I think [Covid] has changed the approach to trade.’’

In the United States, a change in administration at the White House has presented new opportunities.

Free trade was a no-go under former President Donald Trump and New Zealand’s political relationship with the superpower got put on ice too, even though the American market remained a significant trade partner for Kiwi exporters.

“Having the biggest economy in the world isolated, well having them disconnected from trade as happened under Trump was very unproductive and frustrating for most nations across the globe,’’ O’Connor says.

“In spite of the absence of a formal trade agreement, the US is one of our biggest trade partners.

“A formal trade agreement, be it through CPTPP or an FTA, would offer more certainty and security for importers and exporters, but in the absence of that we continue to do a huge amount of trade with the US and will work on growing that.’’

The relationship with the US has remained positive over the years, says O’Connor, but not without the “odd hiccup”.

“That is strengthening now under the new administration, and we’ve seen that with (US Vice President) Kamala Harris speaking at the Pacific Islands’ Forum this week.’’

O’Connor has been in Parliament since 1993 with a brief exit in 2008 before returning in 2009.

“It was a line call and I accept I made that, but what we see coming from the US is clearly disturbing and shocking.”
– Damien O’Connor

Politically speaking he sits more to the right of some of his colleagues in the Labour Party, and over the years conscience issues have seen him vote against same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and abortion law reform.

That record is in stark contrast to the progressive social justice persona that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern carries on the world stage, a stage O’Connor is often stood next to her on, particularly since borders opened back up this year.

But O’Connor pushes back on the suggestion he is singing from a different song sheet to Ardern, telling Newsroom he is a “staunch social justice advocate absolutely opposed to the prejudice we have encountered over the years’’.

He says the “timing and decisions’’ on some of Parliament’s conscience votes may have portrayed him as something else, but that’s “a long way from the truth’’.

O’Connor didn’t want to relitigate abortion law reform but said his vote was about a “technical protection’’ he thought should have been included.

“It was a line call and I accept I made that, but what we see coming from the US is clearly disturbing and shocking,’’ he told Newsroom.

“I absolutely do support New Zealand’s laws on abortion and that there are protections for women that need to be included in the legislation.’’

O’Connor says those sorts of issues don’t tend to come up in conversations he has with his counterparts but broadly speaking “people respect our progressive agenda’’.

An example of that is the work New Zealand is doing around its trade-for-all agenda.

He says many countries are finding resistance in some parts of society to trade and are looking to New Zealand for advice and to better understand how to work with society, communities, and stakeholders “to maintain the social licence for trade’’.

O’Connor’s approach to life and politics in New Zealand is very “upfront and honest’’ and he says that’s the same style he exhibits internationally regardless of the meeting, forum or summit he is at.

His relaxed and easy-going persona means he can often end up the butt of Ardern’s jokes during informal speeches overseas, something O’Connor isn’t at all bothered by.

“I have a unique style and most of my colleagues including the Prime Minister respect that, and of course they can take the piss out of me when they want, it doesn’t worry me.’’

Trade and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Fieldays together in 2018. Photo: Getty Images

O’Connor’s agriculture ministerial portfolio goes hand-in-hand with his trade work but has its own challenges.

As a West Coast farmer, he’s long flown the rural flag in the Labour Party and at the Cabinet table.

O’Connor says he takes that job very seriously, and that means staying connected with the changing rural community.

“Rural New Zealand has changed drastically over the last 30 or 40 years. I think there is a new generation particularly in the primary sectors who are far more closely aligned with what we want as a government in terms of sustainable food systems, high-quality environmental protection.’’

He puts the generational shift down to farmers returning to the land who have travelled extensively and are “focused on higher-value opportunities’’.

There’s still plenty of robust debate to be had with the farming community and O’Connor is frank that there’s “obviously been some shouting matches at forums across the country at times’’.

But he says there’s a new “collective wisdom through generational change in farming, which means we are more closely aligned than some on the fringes wish to portray’’.

O’Connor is relishing the ministerial portfolios he has and the opportunities they’re giving him.

“We’re a long time laying down,’’ he tells Newsroom, alongside a promise he’s not calling it quits anytime soon – or at the next election.

“I’m having too much fun.’’

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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