Australia PM Scott Morrison arrives in Queenstown to iron out the ‘wee devils between us’

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is talking up the importance of New Zealand’s “family ties” with Australia to counter China’s increasing influence in the Pacific.

And though New Zealand and its neighbour will not always see eye-to-eye on every issue, she said the transtasman success in battling Covid-19 has put both countries in a unique position as they look to “safely reopen ourselves to the world”.

Ardern made the comments to a business reception in Queenstown last night, following a powhiri formally welcoming Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife Jenny.

Morrison also spoke about a travel bubble beyond New Zealand and Australia, saying it was “a real possibility”.

The powhiri included a rendition of Waltzing Matilda in te reo and a quip from Ngāi Tahu leader Edward Ellison – who referred to “the wee devils between us” – regarding recent transtasman tensions.

Those tensions include New Zealand’s ongoing anger at Australia’s 501 deportation policy, and speculation over whether New Zealand is too soft on its biggest trading partner China – which Ardern has rejected.

Australia and New Zealand have released joint statements expressing concern about China’s treatment of Hong Kong’s electoral system, but New Zealand is less comfortable criticising China through the Five Eyes intelligence network.

Last night Ardern said she had spoken often to Morrison – “more engagement than with my mother” – during the pandemic’s most trying times last year.

She then stressed the relationship with Australia in the face of China trying to grow its influence in the region.

“In this increasingly complex geo-strategic environment, family is incredibly important, and Australia, you are family.”

Ardern also talked up Australia and New Zealand’s Covid-19 response and the opening of the transtasman travel bubble.

“How we safely reopen ourselves to the world while holding on to the gains we have made – we can write that rulebook together,” Ardern said.

She then used cricket’s underarm incident – “we will never move on” – to highlight how two sovereign nations won’t always be on the same page for every issue.

Morrison used his speech to talk about the loss of international tourism to both Australia and New Zealand, noting the “Fergburger” index – the shrinking line at the famous burger joint in Queenstown as the borders were restricted.

“Let’s see how much further we can go,” he said in reference to the travel bubble.

Asked later by a reporter if the only reason he was in New Zealand was because “New Zealand’s soft approach to China is splintering our relationship”, Morrison said: “No, this is an Annual Leaders Dialogue.”

He added: “And we meet every year and we work through the issues that are part of that very successful partnership, particularly whether it’s the economic partnership or the security partnership.”

Earlier in the day, and across town, sporting legend Sonny Bill Williams and former Socceroo Craig Foster joined an Amnesty International event urging Morrison to take up New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees held in Australian-run offshore detention centres.

“@Craig_Foster & I are calling on@ScottMorrisonMPto accept the offer,” Williams said on Twitter with a photo in front of 150 empty chairs.

“These empty chairs symbolise lost lives, dreams, hope in the interim at a cost of $10 billion + our very sense of humanity.”

Today Morrison and Ardern will hold formal talks.

The meeting – without masks and in person while the world continues to be ravaged by Covid-19 – is being portrayed as a celebration of both countries’ success in keeping the virus at bay, despite the current lockdown in Melbourne.

Morrison, who had been in the Greater Melbourne area recently, and his entourage were required to test negative for the virus before landing in New Zealand.

Top of the leaders’ agenda will be Covid-19, and when and how the Pacific region could open up to the world in a co-ordinated way.

Developments in the Pacific will also feature, including the resistance of the previous Samoa Government to transfer power after elections, and the crisis in the Pacific Islands Forum in which five of its Micronesian members are threatening to leave over the appointment of the secretary general.

One of the issues at stake in Samoa is whether a Chinese-backed $100 million wharf development goes ahead. Fiame Naomi Mataafa, the leader of the winning party, has vowed to stop the development.

Ardern and Morrison will also look to emphasise more of what they have in common – rather than their differences – regarding their stances towards China.

New Zealand said at the weekend that it will become a third party to a trade dispute between Australia and China on barley tariffs.

It follows the airing last night of Australia’s 60 Minutes episode, the premise of which – rejected by Ardern – was that New Zealand had “gone soft on China”.

Australia is also likely to press New Zealand on its plans and commitments to step up its defence capability – Australia is New Zealand’s only formal ally.

The pair are certain to discuss developments in the new Biden Administration in the United States, including developments in the Quad grouping that Australia is part of, with Japan, India and the US dedicated to countering any dominance of China in the region.

Morrison and Ardern will also discuss climate change and the COP26 summit scheduled for Glasgow later this year.

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