Trade Minister Damien O'Connor supports not sending ministers to Winter Olympics, says NZ 'strong' on human rights

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor says it's important New Zealand doesn't send ministers to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games as "we need to stand up and make points", noting "we've been very strong on those issues around human rights".

Appearing before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee on Thursday morning, O'Connor was asked by National's Trade spokesperson Todd McClay whether he supported "the boycott".

"Yes. It's something that we need to do as a nation," O'Connor replied. "We need to stand up and make points. We are strong, we are independent. 

"We've been very strong on those issues around human rights and unnecessary discrimination. We should continue to do that."

However, Deputy Prime Minister and Sports Minister Grant Robertson on Tuesday said the decision to not have ministerial representation at the controversial event next year was "mostly to do with COVID" making travel logistics difficult. He said New Zealand has consistently spoken out about issues in the Asian nation.

The decision about representation at the games was made in October, Robertson said, before the United States decided this week to stage a diplomatic boycott in protest of abuses, leading other countries, like Australia and the United Kingdom, to follow suit. The Deputy Prime Minister wouldn't call New Zealand's stance a "diplomatic ban". 

Athletes were likely to receive support from embassy staff, but otherwise, Robertson didn't think diplomats would attend the games. 

During Thursday morning's Select Committee, O'Connor said he was "not directly" consulted on the decision not to send officials, saying it was an area for the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

"We have a trade relationship with China that is very, very strong," O'Connor said. "There are other issues that we raise at the diplomatic level and we will continue to do so. We'll make judgments on those things as they come along."

He said some of the details may have been discussed while he was away. He's just been on a trade trip overseas, which he got back from on Monday, and is currently in isolation.

"We've had to keep separate our trade relationships from other issues, human rights issues, which we raise with China from time to time. 

"Clearly the Olympics is another area of diplomatic sensitivity. I try to keep trade pretty straightforward. I think that China appreciates that as well, to the benefit of both our importers and exporters."

Given China is New Zealand's biggest trading partner, McClay took issue with O'Connor saying he hadn't been directly consulted.

"On behalf of all of the companies that are reliant upon trade with China, you've said that discussions might have taken place when you're away and you didn't make the case of the importance of consideration of the trading relationship when the Government implemented a diplomatic boycott on behalf of New Zealand of the Winter Olympics in China," McClay said.

O'Connor replied by saying his caucus colleagues were aware of the importance of the relationship.

"There are issues that we have with China that we raise from time to time and that will continue to be the case. There should be demarcation between what is a commercial trade arrangement and what are other issues relating to human rights," O'Connor said.

Damien O'Connor.
Damien O'Connor. Photo credit: Newshub.

Speaking to Newshub, McClay said Kiwi exporters would be "concerned" about the "diplomatic boycott".

"[It's] our largest trading nation and the minister can't remember if he had a conversation and might have been overseas at the time. This is a really serious relationship. 

"There are mixed signals from the Government. Our exporters and the jobs that rely upon those need a clear position."

The National MP wants the Government to "tidy this up quickly", noting the differences between what Robertson said was the reason for not sending ministers and what O'Connor said.

"With China, if there is uncertainty, our exporters could suffer. The Government needs to tidy this up really, really quickly to make sure it doesn't become worse. 

"Australia and the US have said politically they have taken this decision. I don't know what the New Zealand Government's position is, except the Trade Minister has said today it is a diplomatic boycott."

Voicing New Zealand's concerns with China was important, McClay said, but a "diplomatic boycott is raising the stakes". 

"Actually, a minister can jump on a plane, can go to the Winter Olympics and come back and can self-isolate at home as the Trade Minister is currently. I don't understand why the New Zealand Government is not sending a minister to our most important trading nation to support our athletes at the Winter Olympics."

He said a minister should go "unless this is a political decision not to and, in which case, they need to be clear and not try to fudge it".

"There is confusion here and that is not good for New Zealand."

After it was reported internationally this week that New Zealand wouldn't be sending ministers to the event, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Kiwi athletes would still be welcomed

"It is athletes, instead of politicians clamouring for 'boycott' out of selfish political gains, that should be in the spotlight. In fact, no one would care whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the Olympics to be successfully held by Beijing."

While Zhao said "no one would care" if politicians come or not, he also told reporters on Wednesday the United States will "pay a price for its erroneous actions"

New Zealand MPs and members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) Simon O'Connor and Louisa Wall have been among those pushing for a diplomatic boycott. They've written to senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, asking them to publicly confirm they won't accept any invite to the Games.

"Failure to do so will only lend further legitimacy to the Chinese government's efforts to whitewash the abuses taking place in the Uighur region and elsewhere."

In October, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping she had wished China "every success" with hosting the Olympics, but also noted that it "wasn't a general practice for ministers to attend". She said in that same call that issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong were raised.

Earlier this year, New Zealand's Parliament passed a motion declaring that "severe human rights abuses" were taking place there.