Scott Morrison did his own journalists no favours on his 24-hour fleeting visit to Queenstown. Australian media had flocked to see the fallout over New Zealand’s “cosiness” with China, but all they got was a trans-Tasman cuddle puddle, writes political editor Jo Moir.
ANALYSIS: The tone was set ahead of Monday’s annual bilateral between Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern when the first question an Australian journalist asked was whether he was in Queenstown “because New Zealand’s soft approach to China is splintering our relationship?’’
The tensions have been well and truly documented since as far back as late last year when New Zealand opted not to sign a Five Eyes statement condemning China’s actions in Hong Kong.
The rhetoric from Australian media in the months since has increasingly ramped up with claims New Zealand is “going soft’’ on China and putting “dollars before decency’’.
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Australia has been taking a trading hit in the form of tens of billions of dollars after last year joining the United States and United Kingdom in calling for a global independent inquiry into the origins and early handling of Covid-19.
Ever since Ardern and her Government have been criticised at every opportunity where New Zealand has taken its own foreign policy approach.
But on Monday Morrison went into bat for Ardern, which will forever give her an easy out.
Now she can point to Morrison’s own insistence that New Zealand isn’t on the wrong side of this particular war as proof she has been right all along.
Ahead of Monday, speculation was that differences over China would dominate bilateral talks.
While the South China Sea and human rights abuses were discussed and noted in the joint statement from the Prime Ministers, there was no smoke – let alone fire – coming from the leaders’ press conference.
Morrison even went as far as to all but name China as being responsible for trying to drive a wedge between family.
Dozens of Australian and New Zealand media arrived at The Nest in Queenstown on Monday as formal talks were wrapping up.
Each country had been given four questions to ask the leaders.
This is the norm when leaders or ministers hold bilateral meetings and political journalists spend some time working out how best to use their allocated questions.
In order to not waste a question, there is always collaboration with visiting media to make sure there are no double-ups.
By the end of the horse-trading, four of the eight questions were China-focused.
Two countries with a myriad of issues to discuss over two hours – culminating in a 51-point statement being sent out at the end of their talks – and half of the press conference was pitched at one issue (and one country).
But while the questions were focused on the differences between New Zealand and Australia over China, the answers were an exercise in political unity.
Morrison was there to “concur” and “agree” with Ardern at every turn.
Asked by Kiwi media whether New Zealand was jeopardising its relationship with Australia and the Five Eyes and selling its sovereignty to China, Morrison was quick to say “no’’.
He expanded further by saying both countries had “stood side-by-side to defend and protect and promote” principled values and that continued to be “honoured’’.
Closely behind were two China-based questions from Australian media, which clearly got under Ardern’s skin.
Her body language completely changed on both occasions, having offered a “kia ora’’ to the journalists when they introduced themselves – what followed was a brow tightening and lip curling as the tone of the questions increasingly grated.
The first was from the Daily Telegraph and began with: “New Zealand’s recent positioning on China has alarmed Australia and Western allies.”
The visiting journalist went on to ask, “Are you worried your country’s Five Eyes membership could be downgraded?’’
Adding fuel to the fire was a follow-up question in the same breath (this one directed to Morrison) asking whether “Australia and the Five Eyes need friends who will stick with us?’’
Ardern jumped straight in.
“The short answer to your question would be no. In fact, at no point in our discussions today did I detect any difference in our relative positions on the importance of maintaining a very strong and principled perspective on issues around trade, and on issues around human rights.’’
She said New Zealand remained a committed member of the Five Eyes and that was neither in question, nor in doubt.
Morrison stepped in as wingman, saying he concurred with Ardern and then went on to indirectly blame China for that line of questioning.
“I think as great partners, friends, allies and indeed family, there will be those far from here who would seek to divide us, and they will not succeed.’’
“I have no doubt there will be those who seek to undermine Australia and New Zealand’s security by seeking to create … points of difference, which are not there,’’ he said.
Pushed later on who exactly he was referring to, Morrison laughed it off saying, “Oh, there are many others – people are always trying to divide Australia and New Zealand all over the place and they will not succeed’’.
“If I had the ability I’d ask for some examples or evidence of the claim that you’ve made.” – Jacinda Ardern
Next on the list of questions to rile Ardern was whether she was concerned New Zealand “relies too heavily on Australia and others for defence and intelligence-sharing, and is that why you appear to be cosying up to China?’’
Over the course of the question Ardern moved through the emotions from bemused to annoyed to frustrated and then straight-out anger.
“If I had the ability I’d ask for some examples or evidence of the claim that you’ve made,’’ she shot back.
“You’ve already heard me speak directly and strongly to refute the suggestion we’re doing anything other than maintaining a very principled position on human rights issues, on trade issues, as they relate to China.
“I think you’ll find very little difference in many of the messages we’ve been sending relative to Australia.’’
But it was the question of whether New Zealand relied too heavily on others that really wound her up.
“In my very strong view we carry responsibility for ourselves to ensure adequate investment in our defence forces, and equally that we carry our weight as a member of the intelligence and security community.’’
“I reject the suggestion we don’t carry and deliver on our behalf, and towards the international community.’’
Once again Morrison was quick to agree, saying he shared Ardern’s views.
The Australian media haven’t created a China narrative out of thin air and the questions put to the leaders came from a place of some knowledge and insight from within Morrison’s government.
It doesn’t make political sense for Morrison to speak of a war between New Zealand and Australia in such a public setting, and he is no doubt happy to leave that to officials leaking to media and comments from his own colleagues, like his Defence Minister Peter Dutton.
The communication between Morrison and Ardern is incredibly regular and often done over text and phone call so it’s likely they too have had more frank conversations about the relationship than they’re letting on publicly.
But they have the advantage of not having to disclose every call and text to the media.
The only thing the pair found something to disagree on during formal talks was the old trans-Tasman battle over Australia’s hard-line deportation policy.
When asked a question about the Christchurch terrorist and whether he should return to Australia “given Australia deports Kiwi criminals”, Ardern pounced on an opportunity to stick the boot in over deportations.
“Well of course one thing we’d say is that in our view sometimes Australia deports Australian criminals,’’ she threw back.
Ardern knows that’s not an area she’s going to make any ground on, but it also plays well with New Zealanders to continue to raise it as an injustice.
She acknowledged herself that “as with any family we will have our disagreements from time to time’’.
But in truly diplomatic fashion she also pointed out the relationship between both countries was also “much bigger than our differences’’.