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Q+A: John Key interview transcript

Published: 11:59AM Sunday July 24, 2011 Source: Q+A

PAUL This week, you will know, Prime Minister John Key met with Washington's most powerful people, culminating in half an hour with President Barack Obama himself.  He opened doors with a final confirmation that the two countries have got around what's been called 'the block in the road' - New Zealand's nuclear-free legislation - and committed to a new partnership, which is all well and good, but does it bind us, this friendship, to America's wars and is it going to cost us Pharmac?  In his first interview after the Oval Office meeting, John Key spoke to Guyon Espiner about those issues and the claims this week that Israeli spies were again at work collecting identities in New Zealand.

GUYON You spent considerable time on this visit talking about Afghanistan and, indeed, spoke with President Obama about that issue.  Do you categorise his thinking of wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible, or is it more of a slower draw-down, do you think?

JOHN KEY - Prime Minister
 Well, I think the way you categorise it is they do think they're making progress.  I mean, that's one of the things that came through in the Defence Department is that they do think that they are getting some traction, but they don't underestimate the size of the challenge.  And I think everybody ultimately wants to leave Afghanistan, but we want to leave it in a condition where it's not a safe haven for the likes of Al Qaeda.  We've all invested far too much time, and a lot of people have lost their lives there, and I think we owe it to those people who have served so gallantly there that we don't actually abandon ship.  And from New Zealand's point of view, we've got to see that through.
GUYON So you didn't sense an accelerated momentum to get out of there?

JOHN No.  I mean, I think there's a recognition that, you know, it's a place that's cost a lot of money and it's cost an awful lot of lives.  But on the other side of the coin, you go back to the very reason why they were there in the first place, and that was Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and I think you can see by the amount of store they put into the fact that they finally killed Osama bin Laden that that's been a very important part of the story here.

GUYON You mention a lot of money.  It's about US$443 billion from the figures that I've got.  Has it been worth it?

JOHN Well, I don't know.  I mean, in the end, you know, it's not for me to sort of second-guess whether they did the right thing or the wrong thing from a financial perspective.  I think they did it with the right intention, which was, you know, in the end, 9-11 was, you know, a tragedy for everybody, and the US knew they had to deal with that situation and that they just couldn't afford to have a failed state like Afghanistan there, and so they've gone and taken some leadership there.  But, look, what we know is this is the United States - it's now in a very different position than it was when it first went into Afghanistan.

GUYON You mean economically?

JOHN Oh, economically very different.

GUYON That's going to curtail it how?

JOHN  What I think - if you just read the papers, I mean, and just see the sorts of stories that are coming out, it's quite clear that they're bumping up against their debt ceiling.  They've got 10 days now to meet their target and come with a solution.  But, you know, ultimately the United States is going to cut expenditure.  That's been made quite clear, and so one of those areas is defence, which you see talked about in the media constantly now.  What that means, I don't know, but it's pretty- it's been a very expensive war for them.

GUYON You have mentioned that you have no expectation that the SAS will stay in Afghanistan any longer than March, which was the departure date.  Has there been any suggestion, either in your own administration or from sounding or suggestions raised by government officials here in the United States, that New Zealand could play a military role anywhere else?  Look at Libya or somewhere else in the Middle East.  Has that been raised at all?

JOHN No, that's never been raised.  I mean, what comes through constantly is they're really appreciative of the role we've played and they see it as a serious commitment.  One of the things that's come through quite clearly is the SAS are seen what they are - an elite and world class fighting forces that's played a critical role in mentoring the CRU - the Crisis Response Unit - and allowing for the transition.  I mean, that's where the objective here is - it's to put rule back into the people- the hands of the people of Afghanistan and allow them to be able to manage that.

GUYON I guess if you strip my question down and perhaps ask it provocatively, they're not guns for hire, though.  You're going to have to be satisfied that New Zealand's interests are at heart.

JOHN  Absolutely.  Look, I made that decision to send the SAS back to Afghanistan.  I made it with my eyes open, and I made it very clearly and deliberately, and it was because I believed that New Zealand had to demonstrate that it was taking its responsibilities seriously as it came to being global citizens.  And I'm pleased we made that decision, because I think we really have made a difference there, but the time for our men to be serving in Afghanistan in terms of the SAS has to come to an end because at one point, they're only a small unit, and they need to regroup and need to have some time back in New Zealand.

GUYON Perhaps one of the surprises on your visit was this invitation for a US Coastguard vessel to visit New Zealand.  That surprised the US, I understand, that you had given them some advance warning of the marines' invitation, but they didn't know, did they, about the Coastguard.

JOHN I wouldn't put directly in those terms.

GUYON Well, did they?

JOHN  Oh, well, it depends who you talk to, but, I mean, the way I would look at it-

GUYON You would know, though.

JOHN Yeah, well, you know, I'm not going to characterise each and every meeting.  All I can say there is that we put those things on the table for good reasons, and when we come to town as leaders to have discussions with our various counterparts, and, you know, if you don't put things on the table, then you don't make progress.

GUYON What were those reasons?

JOHN  Oh, look, I think, you know, in this case it's largely symbolic, but I think in the long term, you know, it's just another demonstration that the relationship continues to go from strength to strength.  I mean, it's not the critical part of the relationship.  That is trade and TPP.  It's the role of the economy-

GUYON Sure, but I just wonder whether you're testing the waters both literally and figuratively there in that you know that it could cause them some discomfort because they ban certain vessels.  Well, they don't ban certain vessels, but the arrangement that we have both with our legislation in New Zealand and the way that they operate their military under their presidential directive means that certain vessels won't be coming into New Zealand, so-

JOHN Well, the Coastguard wouldn't fall in that category.  No one's questioning that the Coastguard would be nuclear-powered.

GUYON Are you sure that the Coastguard doesn't fall under the presidential directive, though.

JOHN  Well, I can't be sure of that, but all I can say to you is that we didn't ask for a response in that area.  We put it on the table.  I'm glad that we have.  I mean, progress might not be made in day one or day two, and if it never happens, well, that doesn't make any real difference, but this is a relationship that's going from strength to strength, and we do things and we're making progress.  And, you know, in the end, that's why leaders come to town.  I mean, otherwise everything would be debated by officials, and it would operate at glacial speed, with all due respect.

GUYON We've seen the greater degree of cooperation, and you talked about those small symbolic steps.  Isn't the anti-nuclear legislation now a bit of a relic?  Isn't it a bit ridiculous?

JOHN I don't think so.  I think for New Zealanders it's part of who we are and what we are, and, you know, I don't think we need to spend any time debating that.  I think, you know, in the end, this relationship with the United States is a mature relationship.  It's steeped in history and underpinned by shared values and principles.  And at the end of the day, we spend our life arguing about something that, you know, we signed off on 25 years ago.  I think New Zealand was right to do what it did then, and I'm not going to debate the merits or otherwise on the US side.  In the end, that's not the important point.  The important point is that, you know, as two countries, we're working together on the big issues and the world is becoming a smaller place, not a bigger place.  And what the United States know - that in New Zealand not only do they have a good friend, they know they've got someone they can rely on and someone that they form a strategic partnership with in a part of the world that they're very interested in now.  I mean, all eyes are turning on Asia and the Pacific.  It's not just New Zealand that's looking in that direction.  The United States is as well.  And it's reciprocal.  I mean, we know that we can rely on the United States.  We have a relationship with them that is quite different from almost any others than those that you would logically think of, like Australia and the UK and Canada.

GUYON One of the issues that's come in from the sidelines, I guess, on this trip was the accusations of Israeli spying in Christchurch.  One of the things that I don't think we have asked you is why or if you raised this with the parliamentary select committee which looks at intelligence issues.

JOHN  I certainly haven't raised it with the parliamentary select committee.

GUYON Why was that?

JOHN Well, because that committee hasn't met for that purpose.  That's not the- We wouldn't share that level of information.  Not all of those members will have that level of security clearance for that sort of thing.  I mean, that committee meets and debates legislation.  Now, there may be members of that committee that have understanding in that area, but certainly not the committee.

GUYON Did you brief Phil Goff?

JOHN  Phil Goff was briefed, yeah, that's right.  I personally didn't brief him, but my understanding from the director of SIS, Warren Tucker, is that he was briefed and he was shown the same note and report that I saw.

GUYON Is the file closed?

JOHN Yeah.  It closed on- I probably won't tell you the day, but it's closed.

GUYON How seriously do you regard the leak to the media?

JOHN Well, look, it's very, very hard to know whether that is genuinely a SIS agent.  There were things that were written in that newspaper report that are just factually incorrect.  And so, you know, unless somebody is deliberately putting that information there to try and hide their tracks, then we don't know that it's really an SIS agent.  I mean, at the end of the day, I think that we did the right thing from a New Zealand perspective.  We had to take their actions seriously because, you know, it was just a little odd in the way that they left the country and the way that, you know, journalists and others got excited by the issue and said it was worthy of examination.  We did the same thing as well.  At the end of the day, we found absolutely no links whatsoever that they were anything other than what they portrayed themselves to be.  And there's a lot of sort of misinformation that's been put into the public debate.  People have criticised me for not immediately-

GUYON What I was going to ask you about that - do you accept that you made a mistake then?

JOHN Look, I tell you what the challenge is here, and it comes with the territory, and that is that we have a lot of things that we deal with which are sensitive in nature.  And the standard position from pretty much every prime minister has been that we don't comment on issues of national security.  Once we start doing that, we compromise the very people that might undertake that work, we compromise lots of different things.  Now, you know, that's fair enough, and so we've had situations where we have talked about things, like Helen Clark talking about the passport scandal that took place with the Israelis.  That was a genuine proven case.  I mean, this was a scenario where, actually, people did have a look.  Our SIS and police did look into the situation and found nothing.  So, look, at the end of the day, I mean, I realised by the morning, you know, the impression that I had left wasn't sustainable.  If I replayed the video and did it all again I'd probably start where I ended six hours later, but it comes with the territory.  Sometimes you don't get it perfectly right in the first moment.

GUYON Just a couple of minutes left.  Can we finish with the Trans-Pacific Partnership?  One of the concerns back home is about Pharmac and about whether the price of pharmaceuticals and medicines will increase.  We met with some of the people who are representing some big businesses in this town in Washington and some pharmaceutical companies.  They're pushing those intellectual-property issues pretty hard.  Do you expect that those will be finally part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and that could lead to higher drug prices in New Zealand?

JOHN Well, the starting position I've always taken - it's the same one that the Minister of Trade is taking - is we don't sign up to agreements unless we think it's in New Zealand's best interests.  Now, that's always a component series of parts that come together.  You know, the sum of the parts is hopefully greater than the individual pieces.  So, yeah, of course we have to go and negotiate different aspects, but when it comes to the TPP, Pharmac hasn't been the issue that everyone's been pushing.  Intellectual property is an issue of concern, and that's because this is a knowledge-based economy, not a manufacturing-based economy.  It creates knowledge.

GUYON Did you have specific conversations on this, say, with [US Trade Representative] Ron Kirk and other officials, and say, 'Hey, look, you know, we're not trading too much away on Pharmac.'

JOHN It wasn't really like that with Ron Kirk.  I mean, we had a really good discussion with him and there genuinely is forward momentum there.  They want to make progress.  We're working our way through the issues.

GUYON You can't rule out changes to Pharmac, though, can you?

JOHN Well, look, by definition we're in the middle of the negotiation and so, you know, I can't run those negotiations through the media.  What I would say is, you know, I'm increasingly confident that we will get a deal done, but it's not without its challenges.  That means everybody puts everything on the table and starts negotiating our way through, but in the end, we're going to do what's in the best interests of New Zealand.  It's my view that Pharmac works extremely well.  So we didn't get into the weeds into the particular issues, but we did speak of wanting to complete a deal.  And, you know, I think New Zealanders can take a lot of confidence from the fact that we have some incredibly skilled negotiators, they know what they doing and Tim Groser, the Minister of Trade, has had probably the most experience at being the minister of trade we've had, so I'm confident we're going to come out the other end with a deal that's good for New Zealand.

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