A funny thing happened on the way to the Climate Change Forum. Fate allowed me to serve Her Majesty’s Government, once again. In a phantom role, it is true. But it was a privilege, nonetheless.
The NZ Government has courageously undertaken to provide daily briefings to ‘stakeholders’ on progress in the Copenhagen negotiations and our country’s positive role in that. Jeanette Fitzsimons and I have been looking forward immensely to the opportunity to learn about how New Zealand is playing its fair share on turning around the greatest threat to humanity we have yet encountered. And straight from the horse’s mouth – I hope that is taken in the positive spirit it is meant.
We were particularly grateful and impressed, given that the Green Party is in opposition and we have preferred to come independently rather than as part of the official delegation, for fear of surrendering the integrity of an objective judgement. So we were anticipating the briefings with a mixture of admiration – and a touch of apprehension lest we let the side down.
Upon arrival over the weekend, we learned that, to make things easier for stakeholders, the first briefing would be at the delegation’s hotel on Monday morning at 8.30. So I arose early, travelled in the dark and cold, and turned up at 7.45, breathless principally from the cold.
In the lobby I met the ambassador, then Ministers Groser and Smith. There would be no briefing that morning, I was told. They would start Tuesday morning, at a time and place to be conveyed to us. No problem. I headed for the conference, grateful that circumstances had prompted me to be early.
We learned subsequently that Ministers had met with NZ business groups shortly thereafter at the conference. That was good, I thought. It will enable government and business to come to an understanding of how to interact synergistically to save the planet – ensuring that New Zealand plays its fair share.
Monday evening by 10.00 p.m., we had not been advised of Tuesday’s briefing. I reluctantly phoned in to the senior Minister’s chief adviser, not wishing to distract him from his critical tasks. The briefing, he said, would be at the conference site in the NZ delegation room at 9.30 a.m.
Tuesday morning, I arose early again in the dark and cold with purpose. At the site, I was relieved to get through the extraordinary multitude outside the conference precincts in time for the NZ briefing. I turned up at 9.25. The same senior official was there. So was one Kiwi student observing the conference. And two NZ officials. And me. It was all pleasant and relaxed, if rather desultory in conversation. But, without the Minister.
At 9.45 the Minister arrived. The senior official immediately asked for the room to be cleared, which, given the student had already left, meant me. This was so that minister could brief the NZ press. I obligingly collected my papers and left the room, as a small phalanx of NZ press entered.
I was a bit unsure what to do with myself, having been bumped for the first briefing on the conference by our Minister who so clearly knew what was going on in the inside. But I knew that this simply meant that the stakeholder briefing would be deferred to after the press briefing. Of course, I understood. It was important for the Government to get the message out to the NZ people, on what it was doing in the global effort to combat climate change.
As it happened, the entry cubicle outside the briefing room was vacated. No NZ official was within sight. So I plonked down in the secretary’s chair and began to scroll through my e-mails. A positive use of time until the Ministerial briefing commenced.
I had been engaged in this pursuit when a figure appeared over me. I looked up and into the pleasant face of a young official from the Chinese delegation. She introduced herself. Her name was Guo Xin. She had come to enquire about the bilateral ministerial meeting between New Zealand and China, scheduled for 11.00 a.m. She was concerned. She had been trying to finalise arrangements and had received no reply from the NZ Government. What was New Zealand intending to do?
I looked around. Not a person in sight. What to do? I took the plunge. I asked her for some details. Which Chinese minister? Mr. Xie Zhenhua. What portfolio, I felt bound to ask? The reply was unintelligible. I struggled to comprehend. She gave me an understanding look. Climate change minister will do, she said.
She looked at her watch. She was concerned, she said, because time was running out. The Chinese minister was an important person and his time was not be trifled with. If it was not confirmed within the next few minutes, she may need to conclude that New Zealand did not plan to proceed with the bilateral.
My thoughts approached panic level. New Zealand cancel a bilateral on climate change, and no doubt trade, with China? This must not be. Wait a moment, I implored her. I shall clear it up.
I went to the open door into the briefing room. After considerable un-Chinese style effort on my part, I caught the eye of the senior official, the Minister being engrossed in his briefing. I wagged my finger and pointed to the Chinese official who, perversely, was just out of his sight. The official quickly turned away. Another got up, came over and seriously closed the door, virtually on my nose.
I looked around wildly. I had to do something. Guo Xin looked at me expectantly, on behalf of Xie Zhenhua. I had a choice. I could have, and, in light of the previous 24 hours and especially the last 15 minutes was sorely tempted, to advise the emissary that the NZ-China bilateral was cancelled. Now go, and quickly.
But I could not bring myself to do it. Years of humbling obedience to Her Majesty stood in the way. Stammering incoherently, I tried to explain, I could not help her. I could not, I continued, speak for the Minister. Guo looked at me. She looked at the seat I was in, and the desk I was at. She swung around and read the sign. NZ Delegation Room. There was a NZ flag on the door. My accent was unmistakeably Kiwi. I was dressed in a sober suit and tie. My hair was grey. Why was this man suddenly crumbling? What mysterious pressures were at play? She did not understand. She viewed me the way an officer of the law views a suspect. She knew not whether to cancel the Smith-Xie ministerial or play for the last tiny bit of time left. China, she said, could use this time for other meetings. I looked despairingly into her eyes. Nothing I can do now, I whispered. I am not part of the delegation. She turned her head. I am not, I ventured, mist clouding the eyes, I am not a part of the delegation. She looked away. She did not understand this small, strange, country.
NZ-China relations were rescued by the appearance of a young NZ diplomat. Another young woman. They struck up immediately. Yes, of course New Zealand had received the message from the Peoples’ Republic. No, there was never any intent of declining the meeting. There must have been a miscommunication somewhere. Very sorry, from New Zealand to China. The matter was cleared up, between the two young women, in an instant.
Guo left the room without a glance.
The young Kiwi took my seat. She smiled sweetly. We introduced ourselves. She knew who I was. Actually, she said, there had been a misunderstanding about the NZ stakeholder briefing. They had switched the time from 9.30 to 9.00 a.m. No, they had not sent out any advisory to that effect. No, nobody had turned up. Some miscommunication somewhere. She was very sorry. Presumably, on behalf of the Minister. No problem, I said. Thank you for explaining.
They also serve, who only stand and wait.