The Perfect Backdrop: Why didn't John Key's government secure a distant, easily defended venue - like the exclusive Millbrook Resort pictured here - for the signing ceremony of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? The choice of Sky City Casino, in the heart of Auckland City, is seen by many as a deliberate provocation to the TPPA's opponents.
IT WAS BARELY SIX MONTHS since the airliners had crashed into the Twin Towers. In strict secrecy, the intelligence chiefs of the five major English-speaking countries had flown into Queenstown for a series of discreet discussions on the global terrorist threat. From the airport they were driven to Millbrook Resort, a five-star accommodation and leisure complex located about 15 kilometres from the town. The chiefs came with their own close protection personnel who operated alongside New Zealand’s Diplomatic Protection police officers. In case Osama Bin Laden’s reach had extended even as far as Queenstown, a special hostage rescue team was kept in readiness throughout.
The “Five Eyes” intelligence colloquium of March 2002 would have passed entirely unnoticed had a sharp-eyed individual not recognised Robert F. Mueller, the newly appointed Director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, stepping off an unmarked Gulfstream 5 aircraft at Queenstown Airport. (As the French saboteurs of the Rainbow Warrior discovered back in 1985, we Kiwis don’t miss much!)
The question that is exercising many New Zealanders minds, 14 years later, is why our Government has decided against staging the signing ceremony of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) at a venue like the Millbrook Resort. Hundreds of miles from the country’s main population centres, and easily defended, it would have provided a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop to what the Government clearly considers the most important trade treaty New Zealand has ever helped to negotiate. A remarkable agreement, signed in the shadow of the Remarkables. What could be better than that!
Or more enjoyable for the trade representatives from the twelve countries – including the United States and Japan – who are party to the TPPA? It was, after all, the Millbrook Resort which played host to President Bill Clinton when he visited New Zealand in 1999. The President was as fulsome in his praise of its hospitality as his senior spooks were, no doubt, appreciative of its discretion three years later. Why, then, has Mr Key rejected the option that promised his esteemed guests an enjoyable and trouble-free signing ceremony? Why has he decided that the ceremony will, instead, be held at the Sky City Casino in Auckland?
The cynics among us have hailed the choice of a casino as the ideal venue for the signing ceremony. If you’re intent on making a wager as large and potentially catastrophic as the TPPA – where better than a gambling den! Also, as possibly the best domestic example of what can happen when transnational corporations and politicians adopt a common view of the future, the Sky City Casino (and Conference Centre!) has revealed the shape of things to come in the TPPA’s corporate-friendly Pacific.
But, for those of us who expect our Government to keep the peace and maintain law and order, the choice of Sky City as the signing ceremony venue has raised a number of very disturbing questions.
The casino is situated in the heart of downtown Auckland – the city that, just a few months ago, turned out between 10,000 and 15,000 anti-TPPA protesters. Feeling against the agreement is still running high, and the Prime Minister’s decision to effectively rub his opponent’s noses in the Government’s victory has done nothing to calm the situation. Many Aucklanders are now openly speculating that Mr Key would not be too upset if the inevitable mass protests against the signing of the TPPA turned into a riot.
Police confirmation that “public order training” – riot control – has been underway for some time in anticipation of increased “civic unrest” arising out of the signing decision has been received by opponents of the TPPA as ultimate proof of the Government’s bad faith.
Their mistrust is understandable given the Government’s initial flat-out denial that it was hosting the TPPA signing in New Zealand on 4 February. There is also considerable bad feeling about the proximity of the signing ceremony to Waitangi Day. Fear of the loss of national sovereignty is the prime motivator of opposition to the TPPA. To organise the signing of the agreement, in a casino, just 48 hours before the day that celebrates the birth of the nation, must surely rank as one of this Prime Minister’s most provocative acts.
It is also alarmingly at odds with the style of political leadership he has demonstrated to date. Mr Key, like the prime minister with whom he is most frequently compared, Sir Keith Holyoake, is considered a consensus-seeker – not a polariser and provocateur. For that we must turn to Sir Robert Muldoon – the last National Party leader to court riot and disorder for narrow electoral advantage.
Such cynicism was, perhaps, forgivable in a political leader staring down the barrel of imminent defeat, but John Key’s love affair with the electorate continues unabated.
Nothing good can come from this decision, Prime Minister.
Please, go to Millbrook.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 January 2016.