Holocaust memorial: Gerry Brownlee refuses to accept excuses for New Zealand's lack of attendance

An Opposition MP is refusing to accept excuses by Winston Peters and senior New Zealand officials for why they did not attend a Holocaust memorial event in Israel. 

Gerry Brownlee, the National Party's foreign affairs spokesperson, said he "simply does not believe" excuses put forward by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters or House Speaker Trevor Mallard. 

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem held the World Holocaust Forum on Thursday to mark 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz - but no senior New Zealand officials attended. 

Earlier this week, Brownlee described New Zealand's lack of representation at the memorial as "disgraceful" and "embarrassing" for the country. He now doubts the excuses put forward by officials. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said Peters' office was advised of the invitation just last week, and admits that it "should have been provided it to his office much earlier", having received it back in September. 

A spokesperson for Peters said he was "made aware of the invitation on the 16th January 2020, at which point all efforts were made to arrange the attendance of the Speaker. However, this was unfortunately not possible". 

The Speaker was packed and ready to attend the event as a senior representative of New Zealand, since neither Peters nor Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy were able to attend. 

But Mallard's office said he wasn't able to attend at the last minute due to "security concerns". 

Brownlee isn't accepting MFAT's excuse, telling Newshub: "There is no doubt in my mind that they just didn't see it as being sufficiently important to pay any attention to it."

He's also refusing to believe the Speaker's excuse, saying: "I don't believe that either... I don't believe that for one minute.

"I heard that from the Israelis, saying 'we couldn't accommodate your representative because we couldn't provide security'... That is completely unbelievable.

"You've got to wonder if the commemoration of something like the Holocaust is just a little bit too mainstream for the current Government... they like the flash stuff. I think it's just appalling."

Peters, earlier this week, snapped back at Brownlee, accusing him of "politicising" the memorial and accusing the National Party of not sending representatives to similar events in the past. 

Brownlee said it is "not uncommon for the 25th and the 75th anniversaries to be bigger commemorations" and that this year's memorial was "very clearly going to be a much bigger event". 

"I think if anyone is politicising the terrible events and the shocking tragedy of the Holocaust, it is the New Zealand Government, for failing to send a very senior representative."

Brownlee pointed out that in 2015, then-Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson attended the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland, and was accompanied by then-deputy Opposition leader Annette King. 

"He took her as an Opposition representative to make it a proper parliamentary occasion."

Brownlee said it's "completely unacceptable" New Zealand didn't send a representative to the memorial this year when it was attended by US Vice President Mike Pence and Prince Charles. 

"For goodness sake, we should have had someone there... this is just outrageous.

"We've been very prominent around the Christchurch Call - greater tolerance, greater understanding... This should have been something we were at."

Dame Patsy sent a message to attendees as an apology for not being able to attend. 

She spoke of visiting Yad Vashem in 2017 and said it was "personally challenging to take in the museum's narrative of the events leading up to the Holocaust and then its horrifying implementation". 

New Zealand's Ambassador to Israel Dr Itzhak Gerberg described her message as "touching".

New Zealand will be represented by Polish Ambassador Mary Thurston at an event at the Auschwitz Memorial on January 27. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will be speaking next week on the United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Auckland.

The Embassy of Israel in New Zealand declined to comment.