New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison swap football jerseys during a press conference in Queenstown. Photo / Getty Images
The Queenstown prime ministerial meeting was a triumph of Jacinda Ardern’s media skill. The talks also demonstrated that a strategy is required to make substantive progress.
If Scott Morrison had not thought a meeting
with Ardern would be good TV, then Covid could have been used as an excuse to cancel.
Annual meetings of New Zealand and Australian prime ministers are a recent development. Keith Holyoake would not even go to Australia to avoid being the butt of Robert Menzies’ quips, such as “from such little acorns, great holy oaks grow”. Rob Muldoon and Malcolm Fraser loathed each other.
Bob Hawke wrote that David Lange “seemed to find sustained sessions of concentration difficult”. Lange responded, saying Hawke’s biography “needed to be read by a psychotherapist rather than a politician”.
Regular talks started under John Howard and Helen Clark; leaders from different parties have found it easier to get along. For today’s leaders, deportation is a win-win issue: Ardern can stand up for New Zealanders; Morrison can remind his voters he is deporting New Zealand criminals.
The only discussion of deportation would have been about how the leaders would respond at the media conference.
The media focus on the communique’s criticism of China is similarly misplaced. Prime ministerial summits are not a contest – they do not occur unless both sides get what they want.
They both wanted pictures of gondola rides and jersey swapping. The TV pictures of their meeting during the global pandemic were visual proof of their success against Covid.
If any leader “won” over the issue of China, it was Ardern. Our government has repeatedly expressed concern over Hong Kong, the position of the Uighurs and China’s South China Sea claims.
Our Foreign Minister stated that New Zealand would continue to express our views with like-minded nations. This country’s reservation has been about using an intelligence-sharing agreement to criticise China, and the attempts to turn the Five Eyes grouping into an anti-China alliance.
New Zealand used Queenstown to demonstrate our support of democracy, civil liberties and international law.
These talks are far more important to New Zealand. Australia is our closest neighbour, home to 20 per cent of our citizens, our biggest economic relationship and is our most important international relationship.
There is no symmetry.
In contrast, Australia has 11 closer neighbours, has twice as many of its citizens living in the UK, six trading relationships that are bigger, and the US is the most important relationship in which it has an alliance.
An analogy is New Zealand and the Cook Islands. We are the Cooks’ most important relationship but that country struggles to get our bureaucracy’s attention. New Zealand has casually destroyed the Cooks’ economy with a Covid quarantine that was never required.
The communique covers more than 50 topics. China was just one. The issues may seem minor but each is important to some section of New Zealand. “[A] more seamless border for traders” is vital for our exporters, “implementation of the Trans-Tasman Cyber Security Research Programme” is needed by our IT sector and “research and innovation co-operation” is essential for our scientists.
The communique is an instruction to Australia’s bureaucracy to give priority to New Zealand’s concerns.
Two proposals will directly affect tens of thousands of New Zealanders. A “unique pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders” and enabling “New Zealanders to transfer unclaimed retirement savings in Australia into their KiwiSaver accounts”.
It was trade where there was an opportunity to be substantive. The prime ministers gave ritualistic support for the World Trade Organisation. Neither country believes the WTO can deliver significant trade liberalisation.
Both countries are pursuing free trade agreements. Our trade officials are very competitive. In free trade talks we are played off against each other.
At Queenstown the prime ministers could have instructed trade officials to seek common ground and mutual support.
Today the challenge both countries face is that President Biden is proving as protectionist as President Trump.
Queenstown could have sent a message not just to China but also to the US. The prime ministers could have said “America will only regain the global leadership President Biden seeks when America also takes the lead in reducing protectionism and promoting rules-based international trade”.
“The Trans Pacific Partnership, which reduces protectionism and promote rules-based trade, was President Obama’s response to China’s economic challenge. It should also be President Biden’s response.”
The prime ministers should have welcomed the UK’s announcement that Britain wishes to join the partnership. If America were also to join, it would have an historic impact on our two nations’ economies.
Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern should have publicly pledged to work together to get Britain and the US to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (formally, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). Australia and New Zealand would then be founding members of the world’s biggest trading bloc.
China and the world would have taken notice of that communique.
– Richard Prebble is a former leader of the Act Party and former member of the Labour Party.