Scott Morrison has been eager to talk up the bond between Australia and New Zealand, but the Queenstown weather may not be the only chilly reception he gets upon meeting his Kiwi counterpart Jacinda Ardern.
“It’s an Anzac path that we’ve chartered through this pandemic. We have gone our own way,” Prime Minister Morrison said at a business forum on Sunday night, shortly after touching down in NZ for his first international trip of the year.
But the whirlwind visit is about more than just two nations basking in the glory of having all but eliminated COVID in their communities, with the leaders expected to butt heads over immigration and deportation policies, refugees and China.
Recent Australia-New Zealand bilateral meetings have seen Ms Ardern criticising Mr Morrison’s policy of deporting Kiwis while standing next to him, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s awkward disagreement with her counterpart on how to call out China’s human rights record.
All eyes will be on Monday’s joint press conference between the pair of PMs, to see if this will be a three-peat.
Arriving in Queenstown on Sunday afternoon, Mr Morrison praised the “incredibly important partnership” with New Zealand, praising both countries for their “mutual success” in the coronavirus response.
He nominated issues like regional security, biosecurity and “a free and independent Indo-Pacific” as his main focuses for the whistle-stop trip.
But Mr Morrison also shrugged off an awkward question about whether the Australia-New Zealand relationship was “splintering”, over their differing responses to China.
In recent times, Australia has adopted an increasingly bolshie attitude toward China, leading calls for an independent international investigation into the possible Chinese origins of COVID-19 and cancelling Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative agreement.
At the same time, the Morrison government has stared down multiple provocations from Beijing, including an escalating trade and tariffs row, and the infamous tweet with a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.
In contrast, the federal government has been concerned by appearances of New Zealand fostering a cosier relationship with China.
This has included New Zealand declining to sign on to recent statements from the Five Eyes intelligence partnership which criticised Beijing, saying it was “uncomfortable” with such statements, and the Kiwi trade minister suggesting Australia try “a little more diplomacy” with China.
Australia had expected more support from its close neighbour in its China dispute.
A 60 Minutes episode aired on Sunday went as far as claiming New Zealand “ditched us for a fast Chinese buck”.
Mr Morrison told reporters he hoped to discuss “a free and open Indo-Pacific”; a phrase often used by Australian politicians, which many interpret as addressing concerns of China flexing its muscles in our backyard.
Indeed, in another barely veiled statement, Mr Morrison spoke of a region “where sovereign states can pursue their interests free from coercion”.
“We’re Five Eyes partners, I mean, we’re part of ANZUS. We are and have been alongside each other in favouring a world that favours freedom for a very long time,” he said.
“We’ll have the opportunity to talk through those issues and how we can each reinforce our joint efforts to ensure a free and independent Indo-Pacific.”
It was the flashpoint of contention at their last meeting.
Australia’s immigration policy of deporting criminals to New Zealand, even if they haven’t lived there for many years, incensed Ms Ardern and is still an outrage in NZ.
“We will own our people. We ask that Australia stops exporting theirs,” she said at the last joint appearance with Mr Morrison in 2020.
“Do not deport your people and your problems.”
But that policy has continued, and is likely to be a central point in their discussions over the weekend.
It’s known as ‘501’, after the section of Australia’s Migration Act that allows the deportations to occur.
But Mr Morrison isn’t the only famous face in Queenstown this week, and this won’t be the only immigration issue at hand.
#AcceptNZ Accept @jacindaardern’s generous, 8 yr offer @ScottMorrisonMP and let innocent refugees offshore get to safety. The human and economic cost has been obscene, $800 million this year alone for 240 people. Reclaim our humanity, let them go #GameOver pic.twitter.com/GzAzxQynio
— Craig Foster (@Craig_Foster) May 30, 2021
Australian soccer legend Craig Foster and Kiwi rugby sensation Sonny Bill Williams also travelled to the city, continuing an Amnesty International campaign calling for Australia to accept Ms Ardern’s offer to resettle hundreds of refugees.
“Accept it, Scott,” Foster tweeted.
Elsewhere on the agenda, which will perhaps elicit some more positive discussions, will be Australia’s two-way travel bubble with New Zealand.
Quarantine-free travel is a lucrative goal for tourism and business, and the success of the trans-Tasman bubble will be one thing Mr Morrison and Ms Ardern can agree on.
“What I believe Australia and New Zealand has been able to achieve in these last 18 months is quite extraordinary on a global scale,” he told a business forum on Sunday.
The Australian PM was asked about a “trans-Pacific” bubble, potentially bringing in Pacific nations like Vanuatu, to which he responded positively.
“We’ve had a number of those discussions … a bubble that goes beyond New Zealand and Australia is a real possibility. I only was speaking to our colleagues in the region just last week,” Mr Morrison said, naming Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.
With simmering tensions over much of the rest of the agenda, COVID might be one of the main things they can agree on.