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Bush talks to cover trade deal

The Press, Christchurch

Bush talks to cover trade deal

By Colin Espiner in Washington

22 March 2007

Prime Minister Helen Clark has placed a free-trade deal near the top of the agenda for her meeting with President George W. Bush today, after receiving encouraging signals in Washington.

The decision is a shift from the Government’s previous position that there was little point in talking about a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States because of political and economic obstacles.

Two weeks ago, Trade Minister Phil Goff said New Zealand was not in the queue - "there isn’t even a queue".

Foreign Minister Winston Peters raised the subject with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington last year, but it was more in hope than expectation.

New Zealand trade officials and diplomatic staff, and commentators on Capitol Hill, are saying they are picking up signals that an agreement may not be out of the question, even in the final days of the Bush administration.

Former deputy assistant secretary of state Randy Schriver backed such a deal this week, saying New Zealand had earned the right to enter negotiations as a good friend of the US.

Clark echoed Schriver’s remarks on her first day in Washington yesterday.

"We haven’t come here with an expectation that negotiations would open - that’s never been the case," she said. "But our approach has always been that it is not a question of if, but when."

Asked if she felt more confident about New Zealand’s chances than in the past, Clark said she detected a warm feeling towards New Zealand from the Bush administration and Congress.

"I think that we’ve worked as hard on this as anyone reasonably could have, but we haven’t yet got into the queue," she said.

"That does relate in part to the small size and the open economy we already have, so we’re not that attractive a partner necessarily," Clark said.

"On the other hand, at some point I think the substance of the New Zealand relationship overall with the US will be reflected in negotiations around a FTA."

Clark’s comments are an admission that trade and foreign policy are linked - something the Government usually denies - and that New Zealand’s previously cooler relationship with the US may have been the real reason it has not yet got to the negotiating table.

Clark met Rice yesterday and raised New Zealand’s interest in an agreement as part of the brief she will take to Bush today.

"This is the opportunity to put our issues on the table," Clark said.

"That’s why it’s important to mention the FTA and our hope that if at some future point a gap opens up, New Zealand can be in there."

Clark met Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday, along with four senators from the foreign affairs committee.

She told Pelosi New Zealand would be the perfect negotiating partner for a free-trade deal because the Labour-led Government held similar views to the Democrats on putting requirements on labour laws and the environment into trade deals.