Scott Morrison may be looking for a break after a tough year when he arrives in Queenstown at the weekend, but there’s a heavy agenda awaiting him. It’s time for Australia and NZ to rekindle the spirit of CER, as they battle the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, and confront an increasingly assertive global power in China.
The visit will be the first face-to-face meeting between Ardern and her Australian counterpart since NZ shut its borders due to the pandemic. Morrison last met with Ardern in Sydney in late-February 2020, the day the first Covid-19 case was discovered in NZ.
Ardern, announcing the visit, said the Covid-19 recovery, regional and security issues would be discussed. Those issues have become more acute.
On one side there is growing evidence that the pandemic arose not from transmission from animals in Wuhan, but from a state-owned laboratory in that city.
On another front, both countries are making only slow progress with their vaccination programmes (which opens up the issue: why didn’t the two governments co-operate in setting up a joint programme to produce under licence one or more of the vaccines?).
An equally serious issue which The Economist magazine pinpointed last week lies in what it called “The Isolated Antipodes”.
While Kiwis and Australians can enjoy what used to be known as normal life because they have almost eliminated the novel coronavirus , the fact is Covid-19 will circulate for years to come, even with vaccines.
“Antipodeans cannot keep it out forever, ‘unless they want to be isolated from the world until the end of time’ as Alexander Downer, a former Australian foreign minister said”.
The slow rate of vaccination in both countries impedes progress in loosening travel restrictions.
The Economist pointed out acerbically, when a new wave of Covid-19 washed over India last month, that Morrison barred Australians in India from returning – or they risked fines and jail time.
“No other country has threated its own people thus. Nervy Kiwis balked even at a bubble with Australia, which started in April. That is about as ambitious as Ardern will get for now”.
The Economist wound up its report with a quote from a Sydney academic:
“Going down the hermit route is a rejection of our modern transformation into a confident, multicultural country.”
It’s a quote which applies as much to NZ.
Whether Morrison and Ardern therefore can frame a joint approach should be a key item on their agenda.
Apart from Covid, the two leaders should be focussing on the constitutional crisis in Samoa, formulating a policy of exerting pressure either directly or through the UN to get a peaceful transition.
An even bigger shadow on the Pacific is being cast by China.
In her primary statement, Ardern noted how discussions will
“ … centre on how Australia and New Zealand will meet the shared challenges we face. The key focus of the meeting will of course be our Covid-19 recovery as well as how we continue working together on key regional and security issues”.
China has bullied Australia on trade issues, in retaliation for Australia calling on the World Health Organisation to investigate the origins of the Covid pandemic.
That illustrates the problems of dealing with China as it asserts its claims to be a dominant global power. Australian authorities have been scathing of what they see as NZ’s weak-kneed attitude to China.
They were particularly scornful of Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor when he said Australia should show “more respect” to China. Australia may be even more dismayed with NZ’s Defence Minister Peeni Henare, who is reported to be planning to divert more of NZ’s defence spending to defence infrastructure rather than on modernising the equipment of the three services.
Perhaps in preparation for the Morrison visit, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta this week appeared to be more realistic in her attitude to China than earlier when speaking to The Guardian (Australian edition).
She said NZ could find itself at the heart of a “storm” of anger from China. Exporters needed to diversify to ensure they could survive deteriorating relations with Beijing.
The Guardian said Mahuta’s comments came as the NZ government faces increasing pressure to take a firmer stance on human rights violations and crackdowns by China, putting the spotlight on the potential repercussions for countries who provoke Beijing’s ire.
Neighbouring Australia is in a deepening trade war with China, which Mahuta likened to being at the centre of a storm – one which could easily engulf NZ.
“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” she told The Guardian.
It was one of the minister’s more frank discussions of the vulnerability of NZ’s trade dependency on China – and a clear directive to local exporters that they should be seeking to redistribute some of those eggs to baskets elsewhere.
“The signal I’m sending to exporters is that they need to think about diversification in this context – Covid-19, broadening relationships across our region, and the buffering aspects of if something significant happened with China. Would they be able to withstand the impact?” she asked.
China accounts for more than $33bn of NZ’s total trade and nearly 30% of exports.
Mahuta was careful to frame her message to exporters as part of a wider broadening of NZ’s connections across the Asia-Pacific.
“We’ve said that it’s ‘China, and,’ not ‘China, or’,” she said.
NZ would need to strengthen its relationships across the region in the coming years, she said.
“Trade is – while it is important, so is regional peace and stability.”
Let’s hope that Morrison and Ardern can make some real progress on those issues. Here, at Point of Order, we are not holding our breath.