The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand are set to meet this weekend to discuss their countries’ eventual reopening to the world – but the talks could be overshadowed by the “sore point” of Australian deportation policy, and rising regional tensions with China.
Sunday will be the first time New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison have met in person since February 2020.
The visit will take place in Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s best-known scenic tourist spots, and has been pitched as an opportunity to showcase quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel in action. But the longtime allies also have significant points of difference to discuss.
Last year’s visit was a tense one: Ardern tore into Australia’s “501” policy of deporting citizens who have committed a crime, even if they have lived in Australia their whole lives, an approach which disproportionately affects New Zealanders. Ardern said the policy swept up people “who are too young to become criminals on our watch, they were too young to become patched gang members, too young to be organised criminals.”
“We will own our people. We ask that Australia stops exporting theirs,” she said.
New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta told the Guardian in an interview last week that the policy was “a sore point” and “point of friction” between the two nations.
“We’ve continued to raise our concerns with the 501 deportation policy, the stripping of citizenship,” she said. “When New Zealanders move to Australia and they spend the greater part of their lives in Australia and they identify with Australian culture and their centre of gravity in terms of whānau [family] is in Australia – effectively, they are Australians.”
“It will continue to be an ongoing point of discussion,” she said. “That doesn’t stop the overall relationship, the opportunity for New Zealand to find other issues that we can work with Australia on. But it is a sore point.”
Previously, home affairs minister Peter Dutton described the policy as “taking the trash out”– a framing which raised hackles in New Zealand. Mahuta said at the time that Dutton’s remarks “only serve to trash his own reputation”.
Differences on China
Issues of regional security will also be on the agenda, with Australia wanting to present a united front on China. Australia has recently cancelled belt and road initiatives signed with Beijing and the diplomatic rift between the two countries has long since widened into a trade war, with China imposing declared and undeclared sanctions on Australia that hit industries worth an estimated $47.7bn last year. While New Zealand has joined Australia on some key policy statements including on Uyghur abuses in Xinjiang, and electoral changes in Hong Kong, it is perceived to be taking a more accommodating approach.
During a visit to Wellington last month, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, did not respond directly to a question about whether the Australian government wanted New Zealand to take a stronger line against China.
But Payne said it was important to “acknowledge that China’s outlook and the nature of China’s external engagement, both in our region and globally, has changed in recent years”.
“An enduring partnership [with New Zealand] requires us to adapt to those new realities, to talk with each other,” Payne said. “And what we have offered is clarity, and consistency and confidence.”
Asked about Australia’s approach to China, Mahuta told the Guardian she did not “want to be drawn into commenting on the approach of another country in its bilateral relationship”.
But she acknowledged that New Zealand’s approach to China had implications for its Pacific partners. “What I do know is that New Zealand considers itself of the Pacific … and often we’re seen as the doorway to the Pacific – so the way in which we manage many of our relationships becomes quite important,” she said.
“The relationship with China has moved beyond the relationship of firsts – we were the first to achieve a free trade agreement with China – to a maturing relationship and a relationship where we can be respectful, consistent and predictable on the issues that are important to us, but also on the issues that separate and differentiate our view of the world from China,” she said.
“We’ve really reoriented and repositioned into that space because of the maturing nature of our relationship.”
A ‘strategy for reconnection’
On some issues, though, the countries are still very closely aligned, including their elimination approach to Covid-19. If a quarantine-free travel bubble stays in operation between the two countries, their eventual reopening of borders to the rest of the world will also be intertwined.
When announcing the New Zealand trip, Morrison said that “both Australia and New Zealand have been world leaders in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and this visit is a great illustration of the trans-Tasman safe travel zone in action.”
“Australia and New Zealand are family and we share deep historical bonds of friendship, trust and the Anzac spirit,” he said.
When the visit was announced earlier in the month, Ardern said it would be “a chance for us to talk about what’s next for our relationship.”
“As New Zealand is looking outward to map out our plan and strategy for reconnection, our borders are quite closely linked, so I’d like to have a conversation around what our region’s reconnection with the world will look like.”
Morrison will be hosted in Queenstown, one of tourist towns hardest hit by border closures. The visit has also been seen as an opportunity for New Zealand to promote local tourism to an Australian audience – a prospect that may be dampened somewhat by the week-long pause in quarantine-free travel from Victoria, a suspension that may yet delay the trip.
The New Zealand government has asked all those who have travelled from the greater Melbourne area to New Zealand since 20 May to self-isolate immediately and get tested. The order may affect Morrison, who was in Victoria on 20 May.
A New Zealand government spokesperson said that “with regard to the upcoming visit of prime minister Morrison, we are in close contact with the Australian government and working through any implications for the visit”.
It is understood that the health orders will apply to the delegation in the same way as any other traveller – but should pre-departure testing be in place, it would resolve the requirement for Morrison to isolate.
Sarah Martin contributed to this report
• This article was amended on 1 June 2021. An earlier version said that analysis had shown that “China’s declared and undeclared sanctions against Australia cost the country around AU$47.7bn last year”. This should have referred to the total value of the export sectors affected by the trade actions, rather than the final cost of the sanctions.