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Peters swears to be good on FTA

Dominion Post, Wellington

Peters swears to be good on FTA

By Martin Kay

11 April 2008

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters appears to have backed down on a threat to criticise the free trade agreement with China while he is overseas, promising the prime minister he will not denounce it publicly.

After days of the Government and Mr Peters insisting he was free to talk down the deal while overseas because it was a matter of trade, not foreign affairs, Helen Clark’s office said last night that he had given an assurance he would make only limited comments.

"Essentially, the prime minister has received an assurance from Mr Peters’ office that, when he’s overseas and being asked about the FTA, he will confirm that negotiations have been successfully concluded, but that they are the responsibility of the trade minister [Phil Goff]."

A spokesman for Mr Peters confirmed he had approached Miss Clark’s office.

"He didn’t talk to the prime minister directly, but got a message to her making it clear that he would not say anything in public about the deal other than the fact that the negotiation was now completed, the deal was signed and it was Phil Goff’s responsibility."

He could not say whether Mr Peters had given a categorical assurance he would not criticise the deal in private with other foreign ministers.

The Government had spent two days defending his right to criticise the deal while he is overseas, despite the fact it is one of the prime minister’s greatest foreign policy coups.

Asked on Tuesday what he would say about it overseas, Mr Peters replied: "If I’m asked, I will tell the truth. I would have hoped we could have done much better. Obviously, I would be in that circumstance speaking as foreign minister."

NZ First opposes the agreement on several grounds, including the provision for 1800 temporary Chinese workers to come to New Zealand for up to three years and the staged removal of Chinese tariffs on imports from New Zealand.

Though Mr Peters is free to disagree with the Government on areas outside his portfolios when speaking as NZ First leader, criticising trade issues as foreign minister is unprecedented.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen continued to insist yesterday that Mr Peters had that right, and sowed further confusion about his obligations overseas by saying he was free to criticise any Government policies except those in his portfolios.

In another development, Mr Goff said Mr Peters was "quite in order" to speak out against the free trade agreement - despite also saying claims that it was bad for New Zealand were "bullshit".

Though Mr Goff insisted the comment - made during a meeting with Kiwi business leaders in China - was not directed at Mr Peters personally, it clearly applies to his view that the deal is "not good enough".

It means the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry now has one of its two ministers publicly branding as "bullshit" the other’s views on a major policy initiative sealed by ministry staff.

Mr Peters would not comment.