Stars align as hollow words for New Zealanders in Australia shift to concrete action

7:34 am on 10 July 2022

Power Play: It's the first time in a long time a prime minister has returned from Australia with more than empty platitudes over the treatment of New Zealanders there.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese shakes hands with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (R) ahead of a bilateral meeting in Sydney on June 10, 2022. (Photo by Mark Baker / POOL / AFP)

There are significant changes in the trans-Tasman relationship and not only between Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: AFP

The difficult and expensive path to citizenship, the stark contrast between the rights afforded to Australians in New Zealand and the hardline stance taken to deporting people who are for all intents and purposes, Australian, have caused ongoing rancour in what's otherwise a deep and close relationship.

Prime ministers past have appealed to their Australian counterparts to make changes in the spirit of the Anzac bond but they'd fallen on deaf ears, with domestic politics over the ditch trumping any desire to heed the pleas from New Zealand.

"Corrosive" was how Jacinda Ardern described it during an official visit to Sydney in February 2020, her frustration evident as she stood beside then prime minister Scott Morrison, inflamed by the "taking out the trash" comments by one of his senior ministers, and the increase in hard core gang activity in New Zealand from 501 deportees.

In such situations the hearty declarations about the importance of the trans-Tasman relationship rang hollow.

Heading in the right direction

Signs now though, of a significant shift. The inclusion of New Zealanders in flood relief, a willingness to "act like a friend" on 501s and a review of citizenship rules all point in the right direction. That will also include voting rights in Australia - unavailable to New Zealanders on temporary visas, regardless of how long they've lived there, worked and paid taxes.

Citizenship also comes with a range of other benefits and, as Ardern points out, the fact only about 30 percent of New Zealanders end up with Australian citizenship compared with 60 percent for other nationalities, shows something is wrong.

The principle that will drive any decisions made in coming months will be no New Zealander, or Australian, in either country will be deemed "temporary" forever.

On the 501s, deportations from Australia will continue, but Anthony Albanese says they'll take a "common sense" approach, when it comes to someone who has few or absolutely no links to New Zealand.

It was something he said he'd look at during the election campaign but restating it as prime minister obviously makes it much more meaningful, and if Australia keeps faith with that sentiment, will take much of the heat out of the issue for New Zealand.

So why the change?

The personal rapport between Albanese and Ardern is one reason but, more importantly, an Australian Labor government, with a new prime minister, clearly wanting to take a different path than its predecessors.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese escorts New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) for a joint press conference after a bilateral meeting in Sydney on June 10, 2022. (Photo by DAVID GRAY / AFP)

Anthony Albanese is charting a different course to his predecessor, Jane Patterson writes. Photo: AFP

Not only on the treatment of New Zealanders, but on issues like climate change that not only impact Australia's domestic policies, but how it relates to its Pacific neighbours in the broader region. Australia's previous refusal to do anything meaningful had created increasing friction and resentment in the relationship with countries who view climate as their most serious threat - to security as well as to their environment.

And this is a pivotal time for Pacific countries.

The global battle for power rages on with lines being drawn between east and west, democracies and autocracies.

New Zealand has been pushing its credentials as an honest broker, a country with a "fiercely" independent foreign policy and one who can keep lines of communications open with the likes of China when tensions are through the roof.

Compared with fellow Five Eyes' allies, New Zealand has a more constructive relationship with its most important trading partner, China. Ardern has been emphasising the importance of not isolating it, not pushing it closer to Russia and into a space where everyone retreats to their own corner, and away from international laws and norms already under such strain.

It's still unclear whether Albanese's election will result in a "reset" of Australia's relationship with China, with him saying on Friday "Australia's position is that we will continue to engage, and we want to cooperate with China where we can but we will stand up for Australian values where we must".

There were promising early signs including a letter of congratulations from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Albanese over Labor's election win - "welcomed" at the time by the new Australian Prime Minister. However there have since been harsh exchanges, including accusations Albanese was "ignorant", "ill-informed" and being misled by NATO on geopolitical matters. It's also hard to see potential for any real improvement while China's punitive trade sanctions against Australia remain in place.

The risk for New Zealand is tensions spiral further and it's forced to "pick sides", becoming caught up in a global military conflict where its international reputation will afford little protection.

One imminent test will be the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji next week where leaders will directly address the secret security pact Solomon Islands signed with China - a move described as "gravely concerning" by New Zealand and others. Not only will leaders want to discuss the implications of the deal for other countries, but actually see the substance of the text.

This file picture taken on September 5, 2018 shows flags from the Pacific Islands countries being displayed in Yaren on the last day of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

The flags of the Pacific Islands Forum's countries with leaders set to meet in Suva next week. Photo: AFP / Mike Leyral

At the podium beside Albanese in Sydney on Friday, Ardern again warned this had to be done without "singling out" one particular country, and approached in a way that keeps faith with the idea of a Pacific family and within the existing regional security arrangements.

Pacific countries are also well aware of the heightened international interest and the potential that represents; Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna recently remarked on the "fierce geostrategic competition ... [that] has catapulted our region to the centre of global attention in 2022".

"We, as a region, have never held as much leverage and influence as we perhaps do, today," Puna said.

"However, if we are to truly maximise our leverage to this increasing interest and attention on us, we must protect the sanctity of our solidarity as the Blue Pacific Continent. As one Pacific Forum Family."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs