Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s visit to New Zealand this week came at a time of increasing disagreement between the two nations on a range of issues.
But a viewer who watched the soft interview of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by ABC TV News Breakfast presenters Lisa Millar and Michael Rowland on Tuesday would not have detected this.
Certainly the focus of the interview was on what is called the creation of a bubble to facilitate travel between New Zealand and Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pandemics are a rare event. Not so relations between neighbours, particularly if they are allies as is the case with Australia and New Zealand. Consequently, the different approach to China taken by Scott Morrison’s Coalition government and Ardern’s Labour government is a matter of real importance.
What is termed the Five Eyes agreement effectively has been in operation since 1941 when the US ceased being neutral and entered World War II against Germany and Japan. It consists of the five Western democracies of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US.
Until recent years the Five Eyes group has focused on the sharing of intelligence, which is crucial to international and national security. Of late, however, the five nations have made some public statements on China, the future of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the fate of the minority Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province. New Zealand has been the missing signatory on occasion.
On Monday New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the focus of the organisation should be on intelligence alone. She commented: “That’s a matter we have raised with Five Eyes partners. We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes relationship.”
It was a sign that the Ardern government did not support the line taken on China by prime ministers Morrison, Boris Johnson and Justin Trudeau along with presidents Donald Trump and now Joe Biden.
Already there had been mutterings at Five Eyes meetings that New Zealand was not pulling its weight on defence and security and it was really a “four eyes” operation. Mahuta’s statement has drawn attention to the division within the group.
It is widely acknowledged that China is attempting to single out Australia as an example of what can happen to a nation that annoys the Chinese Communist Party leadership in Beijing. China has objected to Australia’s lead in the opposition to the participation of Chinese company Huawei in the rollout of the 5G network on security grounds.
Australia also called for an inquiry into when the COVID-19 virus began, and how — a request that displeased the Chinese leadership. And there is more. For its part, China has engaged in a degree of trade retribution and the incarceration of some Australian citizens on dubious charges.
The US, initially during the Trump administration and now the Biden administration, Britain and Canada have broadly supported Australia. Much less so New Zealand.
For example, in late January, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor declared that his country had a “mature” relationship with China.
O’Connor added: “If (Australia) were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time, and be cautious with wording, then they too, hopefully, would be in a similar position (with China).”
He later backed off, making the obvious point that “the Australia-China relationship will always be a matter for China and Australia”. In which case, why did O’Connor make his gratuitous statement in the first place?
Australia shows respect to its neighbours, allies and trading partners. What’s at issue between the two nations is policy, not manners.
Ardern was not quizzed on such issues during her News Breakfast interview. First up, Millar asked: “Why shouldn’t Western nations be collectively voicing their concerns about countries like China?” The reference should have been to the Five Eyes group, not “Western nations”.
Ardern is a very clever politician and she used the occasion to say New Zealand wanted to sign statements with a group that included Germany.
Millar’s second question did mention Five Eyes. Ardern avoided the question and mentioned that New Zealand should get involved with a “broad community” on China — without mentioning any nations specifically.
Soon the interview was over. Millar declared “she’s good” and Rowland said it was a “great chat”. Neither presenter mentioned the recent comments by New Zealand’s foreign and trade ministers.
The harsh reality is that New Zealand gets its defence security and intelligence on the cheap, courtesy of Australia, the US, Britain and to a lesser extent Canada. Australia spends almost twice as much of its gross domestic product on defence — around 2 per cent — compared with New Zealand, which is just over 1 per cent.
Australia and the US provide the security that protects New Zealand’s sea and air lanes in the Southwest Pacific. Also Australia’s contribution to Five Eyes’ intelligence is much more substantial on a per capita basis than that of its neighbour.
Ardern is a popular politician at home and abroad. But she has particular appeal among sections of the Australian media on account of her stance on fashionable causes including New Zealand’s approach to climate change. In fact, Australia has achieved much more in reducing emissions than New Zealand — but that’s not the story Ardern tells at home or abroad.
No doubt some Australians feel a degree of guilt because of the fact it was an Australian-born man who, having embraced an extreme right-wing ideology, murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019. This was a terrible crime, for which the mass murderer is properly serving a life-means-life sentence.
However, the attack was committed when New Zealand’s gun laws were significantly weaker than Australia’s and its security services were not monitoring extreme right-wing organisations.
New Zealand is a great tourist destination, as Ardern told News Breakfast, but its military and intelligence could do more.