By Peter Dunne*
Australia’s latest announcement that it intends to toughen its already strict deportation rules, with their likely impact on New Zealanders, is a slap in the face for the diplomacy of the Prime Minister.
Remember that barely two weeks ago the Prime Minister was repeating her assertion to her Australian counterpart that the current policy was discriminatory and a “corrosive” factor in the ongoing relationship between the two countries. Australia’s response was not just to ignore completely her representations, but, now, to also rub salt in the wounds by the latest announcement. In the meantime, various Australian journalists, far less in the Prime Minister’s thrall than their New Zealand counterparts, have been vocal in their cynicism and criticism of the New Zealand position.
All of which leaves New Zealand in a very difficult position. No matter how obnoxious we may feel the Australian policy is – and successive governments since it was introduced in the time of Helen Clark have been vocal in their opposition – Australia has not only snubbed its nose at New Zealand’s protestations, but has now felt sufficiently emboldened to go even further. Successive Prime Ministers have ruled out New Zealand stooping to Australia’s level in retaliation which, although admirable in its own right, has effectively left us with nowhere to go but acquiescence. The more we protest, the deafer Australia seems to become, so more of the same from our part is not going to change anything.
Australia has now roughly and cleverly boxed the Prime Minister into a corner. It has created the perception of a nice, well meaning but ineffectual Prime Minister “concerned” about the treatment of New Zealanders in Australia and refugees on Manus Island versus the pragmatic, realistic Australian leader determined to keep Australia’s borders secure by either deporting undesirables to their country of origin or not letting them in in the first place . New Zealand’s moral outrage is all very well, but starts to lose its impact if it cannot deliver the desired change. This is the dilemma our Prime Minister now has to contemplate.
It is a pity the Prime Minister was in the Tokelaus on a long-scheduled visit when this latest announcement broke, but that does not prove Simon Bridge’s erroneous claim that she is a part-time Prime Minister. However, it does give some substance to his point that she seems far more comfortable in the international limelight than dealing with the immediate problems confronting New Zealand as a country.
If the New Zealand news media in general was far less in awe of the Prime Minister and seemingly unwilling to make life too difficult for her they would be starting to ask some tough questions by now.
For example, what advice has the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra been passing to the Government? Surely it would have been picking up strong messages from the Australian Government over a period of time on its attitude and future intentions on deportations and passing these back to Wellington to better inform our responses? What advice were officials in Wellington preparing for the government on the developing situation, Australia’s increasingly entrenched position, and options for possible diplomatic responses? If the advice was that Australia was increasingly unlikely to budge, what was the rationale behind having the Prime Minister continuing to ride a high moral horse that was not going anywhere? Or was that her decision, contrary to any official advice?
While most New Zealanders will support the Prime Minister’s ongoing concerns, equally most New Zealanders will not like being made a fool of by Australia’s latest decisions. They will be keen to know whether we do have some sort of long-term end game in mind, and that this is merely an unfortunate hiccup on the way, or whether our Prime Minister has simply been comprehensively outplayed by the Australian Prime Minister and his colleagues on the issue. They will want to know whether the one-upmanship of the sports field for so many years has now become the way the political relationship between our two countries will henceforth be conducted.
Above all, they will be looking to the New Zealand news media to start to treat the Prime Minister seriously on these and other issues by asking the tough questions they have shied away from for too long. She is articulate and able, and deserves to be held to account as such, rather than just continuing to be demeaned by being portrayed as little more than a smiling face on a magazine cover.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.