Helen Clark arrives in Australia for her annual pow-wow with John Howard today, leaving behind a scrambling foreign service, three thoroughly chastised newspapers and a populace looking at its first brush with the uncertainty of the 21st century terrorist threat.

With Kiwi farmers quaking in their jandals at the prospect of their lamb, beef and milk being slapped on to some Middle Eastern blacklist for trade, Clark has had her Trade and Foreign Ministers out on the media hustings, doling out a right slagging-off to the Fairfax NZ papers that “gratuitously” published the Muhammad cartoons putting “our people offshore at risk.” The editors, meanwhile, have gone to ground, leaving their defence in the hands of the Fairfax flak.

Around the Muslim world, Kiwi diplomats are getting a workout, knocking on doors in a bid to get across the message that Aotearoa is still the benign and tolerant little Pacific sheep station that opposed the Iraq war but just happens to have a rather unfortunately free media.

Minister for Trade Negotiations Phil Goff has said he won’t step in unless places like Iran make good on their threats to bar goods from countries that reproduced the caricatures, instead preferring the softly-softly tack of the diplomatic cocktail round. You get the feeling he hopes tiny New Zealand will just accidentally be left off the end when the alphabetised roll call of blasphemous nations is drafted up.

New Zealand enjoys a trading relationship worth more than NZ$1.5 billion with Muslim countries, and some panicky Kiwi companies have already threatened layoffs if trade ties are cut. With the Danish Trade Office in Auckland evacuated overnight, NZ is now getting its first real taste of the post-9/11 world.

While Clark and her Aussie counterpart toast their joint political longevity this week and discuss trans-Tasman trade ties, the NZ Opposition will be getting on with its annual conference.

Despite leader Don Brash’s best efforts to put the spotlight on the dipping Kiwi economy, just one day into the talk-fest and he already has his whip out in a vain attempt to discipline a caucus that just won’t stop bending the ears of its favourite journos. Brash will be thankful that the Muslim trade row is keeping the barely anonymous tales of leadership intrigue off the front pages.

Peter Fray

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