21 Dec 2023

Luxon 'exploring' non-nuclear part of AUKUS pact

7:20 am on 21 December 2023
Australian and New New Zealand Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese and Christopher Luxon meet in Sydney

Australian and New Zealand prime ministers Anthony Albanese and Christopher Luxon meet in Sydney, 20 December 2023. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has returned from Sydney where he met his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese, using stronger language on defence and the AUKUS agreement.

New Zealand is "exploring" joining the non-nuclear pillar of the agreement, Luxon says, and he wants New Zealand to do its share of "heavy lifting" in its defence alliance with Australia.

For a trip which made defence discussions a priority, it maybe did not help that the beleaguered Defence Force plane nearly derailed it.

But Luxon was at least able to laugh it off.

"We spent a bit of time talking about aircraft. I mean, Prime Minister Albanese is quite a 'planiac', an aviation nut. And so he's had several gifted Air New Zealand model airplanes in his old office from me.

"So I said to him, he's more than welcome to give me one of those Falcons if you'd like.'"

New Zealand might not be able to get a new jet.

But Luxon is keen to know what else New Zealand could gain by signing up to the second pillar of AUKUS.

New Zealand's non-nuclear status is non-negotiable, but Pillar Two is about sharing technology, and Luxon said he was exploring it.

"It's really about new technologies that we may be wanting to build capability on, or bring or offer capability to in the alliance. At this stage for us, it's about exploring what's in Pillar Two, how it can be shaped, and when there's opportunities for New Zealand to participate in."

Previous language around AUKUS has been about being 'willing to' or 'open to' exploring the agreement.

International relations professor Robert Patman from Otago University said even joining the non-nuclear pillar of AUKUS carried a reputational risk.

"We have projected ourselves globally as believing and representing a worldview that's based on non-nuclear security. And so there are risks that that projection can be eroded if New Zealand even joined Pillar Two of AUKUS. So there's a lot to weigh up," he said.

The prime ministers were in lock-step over the trans-Tasman relationship, and the opportunities for defence and security.

Luxon pointed to the Pacific as a key area.

"In our near-neighbourhood base is obviously a complex and growing array of challenges, including the impacts of climate change, and an increasingly contested strategic environment. And we are determined to work together as bedrock partners in the region," he said.

After the press conference, he expanded on that view.

"We have a region that is increasingly contested and competitive, we have countries within the region that are increasingly investing in military capability. How we ensure peace in our region, and stability, and security is actually really important.

"And so I just want to make sure that we are very aligned that we are driving more inter-operability, and in particular, we can be a force multiplier for Australia and vice versa."

Albanese was keen to lean on past examples of cooperation as a map to the future.

"Often it is indeed our defence forces respectively that provide support for each other in times of need, of natural disasters. And that's just one area whereby increased cooperation could benefit both of our nations."

The two countries' defence ministers and foreign affairs ministers are set to meet in February. Luxon said meetings between finance ministers and climate change ministers would follow.

While Albanese was keen to stress Australia could not force New Zealand to sign up for anything, he was clear there were benefits to closer cooperation.

"There are opportunities for greater cooperation between our militaries, particularly in inter-operability, that have practical effects as well. It's about efficiency."

Australia is New Zealand's only military ally.

Massey University Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies director William Hoverd said working closer with Australia made perfect sense.

But joining AUKUS carried a risk of getting drawn into a Pacific power struggle between the US and China.

"The question is, should New Zealand engage in an independent foreign policy and balance in that space? Or should we almost kind of move closer towards taking one particular side?

"And the argument that we've seen from the Prime Minister today is that the world is more threatening, and so he's sort of suggesting that we start moving that way and take a position."

501 deportation policy

Ahead of their first bilateral together, Albanese told Luxon he was keen to build on the relationship in every way.

"We need to streamline any further bumps which are there, and I know that you're very keen on that, as well, in the interest of both of our nations," he said.

While the prime ministers mostly cut serious figures at the joint press conference, outside of it there were lingering handshakes, a hearty "hey mate", rugby league jersey swaps, and weather chat.

Albanese twice apologised for the Sydney rain. The two were keen to remind everyone that despite a change in government, New Zealand and Australia remain the best of friends.

"I think New Zealanders in Australia make a fantastic contribution to Australia. Just putting it out there, I think they're probably your best migrants," Luxon said to Albanese.

Many of Luxon's predecessors have walked into bilaterals ready to take Australia to task over the treatment of New Zealanders, and the 501 deportation policy.

With the new 'common sense' approach, Luxon would probably not have expected it to come up, until it emerged a 57-year-old man was deported to New Zealand three weeks ago, despite not having set foot here since he was two.

Albanese would not touch the matter when questioned.

"I don't comment on individual cases. What I would say is Australia's position has been to apply a common-sense approach to these issues, that has I think contributed to the improvement in relations between Australia and New Zealand."

Back in New Zealand, Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters was not happy.

"That someone who left this country at two years of age was sent back here as 501, that's wrong."

Luxon would not use that choice of wording but said he did raise it in the bilateral.

"On the surface of it, it looks like it's someone who doesn't have historically long ties with New Zealand whatsoever. And as a result, I raised that with the prime minister.

"We respect the fact that Australia has its own policies around deportation. But I also respect the fact that they have made a very big step forward, around actually trying to find a common-sense way through that through that issue."

Luxon leaves Sydney with a new Rabbitohs jersey, a pep in his step, and an invite to visit Melbourne next year for the ASEAN meeting.

But, as Albanese indicated, some further bumps still need to be streamlined.

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