It was reported in a recent weekend edition of the New Zealand Herald that our Foreign Minister (Murray McCully) had been ‘mortified’ by certain information that had come to him. What was it, one might wonder, that had so discomforted the minister and caused such frantic activity in his department?
Was it a new appreciation of the continuing economic melt-down in Europe, with its clear implications for the vulnerable Chinese economy and the inevitable knock-on to our trade with China, on which we so much depend? This, together with fresh data on the perceptible slow-down in the economy of our nearest neighbour, and largest economic partner, Australia, would certainly have been of concern.
Perhaps, it was a detailed digest of recent opinion from the British official climate research unit at the University of East Anglia, which seems to accept that there has been no global warming over the last sixteen years, and, more importantly, that key natural drivers of climate change (the output of the sun and long-term ocean temperature cycles) were not as well understood as the official proponents of human-induced climate change had understood. Again, this would have profound implications for Government policy, and for the Government’s relations with its partners in the Kyoto process. It would have been understandable if this had caused a certain amount of ministerial soul-searching, especially in view of the economic impact of present mitigation policies.
More speculatively, it might have been that Mr McCully had received a confidential report from our intelligence services about the security situation in North Africa and the potential risks to New Zealand travellers there, and, especially for the veterans going to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. Such a report would have undoubtedly referred to recent events in Benghazi (which is quite close to the site of the battle) and earlier incidents in which Islamic extremists targeted a World War 2 cemetery, destroying headstones and memorials. This latter was in March of this year and also in Benghazi.
In fact, of course, it was none of these things. The cause of all the consternation was simply that the United States had been proposing to use a nuclear-powered icebreaker to cut a passage through a ten-kilometre barrier of ice, to get through to McMurdo Sound to resupply the communities in Antarctica after a long, cold winter. And this was just before a New Zealand general election. No wonder Mr McCully was embarrassed!
It is, of course understood that for New Zealand governments, of whatever stripe, rationality departs whenever nuclear issues arise but what we should be embarrassed about in this case is an inability to draw a distinction between nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapons (or even nuclear waste). This is a particularly egregious failure since we have available the results of our own official inquiry into the safety of nuclear propulsion (the Somers Report), which found (as I noted on a previous occasion) that there was ‘no rational cause for apprehension’. The report likened the danger to that from drinking a cup of coffee, or riding a bicycle.
Given this, and the absence of any evidence of problems from nuclear propelled ships (even when they are crossing through the equator) it really is astonishing that we would have apparently preferred that McMurdo remained cut-off, rather than have it opened up with a vessel that was nuclear propelled. Now that thought really is 'mortifying'!