New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Direction Uncertain Under New Coalition Government

Recent Features

Oceania | Politics | Oceania

New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Direction Uncertain Under New Coalition Government

As Kiwis prepare for a new government and coalition partners fight for power, should the world expect a fresh approach from New Zealand?

New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Direction Uncertain Under New Coalition Government

Presumed New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon (front left) leads a group of National MPs to Parliament for the first time after the election, Oct. 15, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ Christopher Luxon

On October 14, New Zealanders voted to boot Chris Hipkins and his Labor party colleagues out of government. The red wave surfed by Jacinda Ardern in 2020 crumbled, with Labor losing almost half their seats in Parliament as a result. 

New Zealand’s proportional electoral system means it is rare for one party to form a majority government. Saturday’s results suggest the right bloc will form a new coalition government. However, it remains unclear who will even be in this coalition, let alone what they seek to achieve in the next three years.

Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon and his National Party are set to work with the ACT Party to form a coalition. This is an uncontroversial and expected political marriage. However, the question on every journalist’s lips is whether there will be three in the marriage. Will National and ACT need the support of Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party to achieve a majority?

The votes are so tight that the answer to that question will only come on November 3, when more than half a million special votes are released. These are primarily people who have voted from overseas, or from outside their electorate, and represent a fifth of total votes. 

These voters tend to favor left-wing parties, which may result in National and ACT losing their narrow one-seat majority. If this happens, cue NZ First’s necessary re-entry into government. 

As usual in New Zealand elections, foreign policy was well down the list of talking points for politicians on the campaign trail. Leaders know it is simply not a vote-winning issue. Voters don’t seem to think it’s important either: an Ipsos poll earlier this month reported that less than 1 percent of voters thought defense and foreign affairs were in the top three issues facing New Zealand. 

New Zealand’s history suggests changes in government typically result in only small adjustments to foreign policy. However, National, ACT, and NZ First do disagree on certain foreign policy issues, and these disagreements could cause tension around the negotiating table. By focusing on where the three parties disagree, we can highlight areas of potential change or future disunity in New Zealand’s foreign policy.

The coalition leader, the National Party, made no mention of even a single traditional foreign policy issue in their 100 Day ACTion Plan. In their Foreign Affairs, Defense and Veterans policy document, there is little substance beyond vague commitments to maintaining the status quo. Quite frankly, it’s impressive they managed to say so little with so many words. 

Their policy document strays slightly from the status quo when it says National will prioritize a free trade agreement with India, despite civil servants expressing doubt. NZ First agrees with National, but the significance of the dairy sector in both countries presents a major obstacle in getting a deal over the line. 

Both the ACT Party and NZ First have said in election commitments that they would like real defense spending to reach 2 percent of GDP by 2030. National’s defense policy document makes no mention of spending targets, and instead speaks on defense policy with meaningless ambiguity. However, in an election debate Luxon said National would in fact commit to a defense budget of 2 percent of GDP.

ACT and NZ First agree that New Zealand should stop engaging with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which the National-led government signed up to in 2010. ACT wants to ignore the non-binding agreement, whereas NZ First wishes to formally withdraw. This policy from both coalition partners stems from their dissatisfaction with the Labor government’s approach to race relations.

Engagement with China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner, is another area of potential tension for the negotiating parties. National recently said they were open to direct investment from China to fund infrastructure projects, but the ACT Party said in no uncertain terms that they would prevent this. There is no doubt the government’s approach to China will be a key topic during post-election talks. 

Finally, coalition talks cannot neglect one of the most important questions facing New Zealand foreign policymakers: Should New Zealand join the second, defense technology-based, pillar of AUKUS? This is very much on the cards, with Luxon saying he was “open” to the idea. Leaders of NZ First and ACT have also expressed their support for the idea of joining AUKUS.  

How New Zealand would reconcile its long-held anti-nuclear foreign policy with the AUKUS deal to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia is another obstacle the new government will have to overcome, should it wish to join AUKUS in some capacity. 

National, NZ First, and ACT must have robust conversations about the disagreements highlighted above if they wish to form a strong, stable government in a few weeks’ time. These early conversations are vital to ensure a united foreign policy over the next three years. New Zealanders, and New Zealand’s international partners, deserve no less. 

For now, New Zealand’s foreign policy ship is rudderless, and the direction in which it plans to sail is still unclear. However, despite disagreement between coalition partners, the ship is unlikely to radically change course away from the status quo.