Richard Prebble: Increasingly authoritarian China has silenced New Zealand

Nanaia Mahuta began as Foreign Minister by putting out a statement – supported by the USA, UK, Canada and Australia – calling on China to respect democracy in Hong Kong.

China responded by threatening to tear out our eyes.

Last week, using the new national security law that China forced on Hong Kong, there were mass arrests of pro-democracy activists. The USA, Canada, UK and Australia put out a joint statement condemning the arrests.

New Zealand was conspicuous by our absence. Mahuta’s response was 43 words on Twitter expressing regret. There is no official response on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

For the first time in our history, our government has decided the cost of standing up for democracy is too high. Appeasement does not work. China now knows we buckle to pressure.

Last week shows that the world needs the United States. What is happening in the US affects us too.

The biggest event last week was not the storming of the Capitol. It was the Democrats winning the senate races in Georgia. After nearly two and a half centuries, despite historically the population of Georgia being half black, the state has elected its first black senator.

The long-term significance is the South is changing. The suburbs of Atlanta voted Democrat. The suburbs of Houston also voted Democrat. If Texas goes Democrat it will be very hard for the Republicans to win the presidency.

The short-term significance is the Democrats now control the House, Senate and presidency.

Only after the Georgia races were declared, Joe Biden nominated DC Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Justice Merrick Garland to be his attorney general. When Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court the Republican Senate refused to consider the nomination.Biden could only nominate his attorney-general once he knew he could replace Garland on the Appeals Court with a judge of his choice.

Biden has gone from being potentially one of the weakest Presidents to being able to implement his programme.

Obama and Trump only controlled both the House and Senate for two years. Biden’s majorities are narrower. He is unlikely to have control of either chamber for more than two years. With the Senate filibuster, Biden only has time to pass some of his agenda.

The Covid pandemic has to take priority; the vaccine rollout and restoring the economy.Biden will not want to use his precious legislating time on a post-Trump impeachment trial. He may have no choice. Inciting an insurrection has to be a “high crime and misdemeanour”.

The average voter has no idea whether voter fraud is common. It was possible for President Trump to persuade a majority of Republican voters that the last election was stolen.

Voter fraud is rare. I was a candidate or a campaign manager in 17 elections and I have never seen organised voter fraud. Organised voter fraud requires the co-operation of too many people to be feasible except in authoritarian regimes.

In contrast to voter fraud, which no one saw, Americans all saw on their TV Trump supporters storm the Capital. Republican voters saw President Trump encourage the riot. The damage to the Trump brand is permanent.

President-elect Biden would prefer to just let Trump leave office in a week’s time and face his many court cases.

It is very unlikely that Vice-President Mike Pence will use Article 25. The provision is there for when the President is incapacitated, not as a substitute for impeachment.

Instead, the House is likely to pass articles of impeachment. The House could delay sending the articles of impeachment to the senate until Biden has had time to confirm his Cabinet and passed a Covid relief package. Whenever there is a trial in the Senate it will be divisive and take away precious legislative time.

To unite the country, Biden needs policy that has bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans are deeply concerned by China’s increasing authoritarian behaviour. Biden wants to put together a liberal democratic coalition of nations to challenge China’s actions such as using trade to punish Australia, arresting two Canadians as retribution for Canada’s arrest of a Chinese Huawei executive and now mass arrests in Hong Kong.

Our government needs to say to the incoming administration: “There is already a coalition of liberal democracies pledged to uphold international law and rules-based trade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The United States and the UK need to join”.

With the addition of the United States and Britain, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be the world’s biggest trading bloc. New Zealand would no longer be economically dependent on China.

It would be a foreign policy success for Biden. Our foreign minister would once again stand up for our democratic values. It is the best way to support the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

• Richard Prebble is a former member of New Zealand Parliament. He was leader of the Act Party from 1996 to 2004.

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