Nuclear-free NZ still here by lunchtime

Am I missing something? Here's John Key back on the world stage, and posing for pictures with American President Barack Obama.

Apparently he received a personal invitation from Obama to attend the Washington summit on nuclear proliferation.

New Zealand is, according to Key, happy to lend its anti-nuclear credentials in support of Obama's bid to stop nuclear arms from falling into the hands of terrorists.

It's possibly a bit late for that, and possibly a little hypocritical, given that the US is the only country in the world ever to have used nuclear weapons against other people.

But putting that to one side, it's wonderfully ironic to see that the one thing that has been such a stumbling block to US-NZ relations for the past 14 years - our nuclear-free stance - is now being used to bring the two nations closer together.

Which brings me to my question. What was Sir Geoffrey Palmer doing at the weekend, calling for US navy ships to be allowed back into New Zealand ports? Can we really have our anti-nuclear cake and eat it, too?

The part of me that always felt proud at our nuclear-free stance and the speech David Lange delivered so beautifully all those years ago to the Oxford Union (you remember, the one about "uranium on the breath") blanched at Sir G's suggestion.

The nuclear-free legislation was a defining moment in our history, and in our sense of nationhood. At least it was for my generation.

So I was interested to see that a recent poll on The Press website found that a narrow majority of respondents (51 per cent) were in favour of resuming ship visits.

Just 22 per cent said it would undermine our nuclear-free status, while another 26.5 per cent said visits should be permitted only if America guaranteed that their vessels were nuclear-free.

So even adding these two together, a slender majority favours a resumption of ship visits.

I reckon five years ago that number would have been quite different. I'm not sure whether it's the warming of US-NZ relations that's responsible, or the fact that the US has made such efforts to reduce its nuclear arsenal - or, most likely I suspect, that people in their early 20s weren't born when Lange made his big stand.

A straw poll around the office tends to bear that out. The younger ones couldn't give a toss about our nuclear-free status, despite it being such an article of faith for those aged 40 and over.

So was Sir Geoffrey right after all? As one of the architects of the legislation, it was a big call for him to say it's time to let bygones be bygones.

But I suspect that such a policy change would be difficult to implement without changing the nuclear free law. For us to accept ship visits we would need to ascertain that they were nuclear-free and to do that they would need to tell us - and I'm pretty sure they never will.

Eventually of course it will become academic because the way things are going, the US will sooner or later have no nuclear-powered or -armed vessels anyway.

But I can't see the law changing, even if National has traditionally been opposed to it.

Don "gone by lunchtime'' Brash might have been a fan of scrapping it, but John Key can see it's worth more to New Zealand in place than it is off the statute books.

Palmer's timing was therefore interesting. Was it a wind-up for Key on the eve of his moment at the nuclear summit? It seems strange to raise it just when it seemed both sides had finally agreed it was not something to allow the relationship to founder on.

I thought Key put it pretty well at the summit today when he said: "While everyone understands New Zealand's history in this field, I think it's important, I can allude to it, but I don't think the argument at this point is to argue everybody should follow the same pathway that New Zealand has, but to point out that I think that a world free of nuclear weapons is a world that we should all want to see and that the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands."

Who'd have thought a National prime minister would say such a thing?