Ardern’s Allbirds diplomacy offsets trans-Tasman discomfort

It was Jacinda Ardern’s third trip to Australia in four months, but she keeps running into the same old obstacles with Malcolm Turnbull. Sam Sachdeva was in Sydney with the Prime Minister, and reports on the areas of contention - and cooperation - from her visit.

The trip to Malcolm Turnbull’s Point Piper mansion has become a rite of passage for New Zealand prime ministers.

It went to new heights under John Key, with a sleepover in what was deemed “pyjama diplomacy”.

Jacinda Ardern didn’t spend the night, but she and partner Clarke Gayford were hosted on Thursday evening for dinner.

There was also the traditional gift exchange, with Ardern giving Turnbull and his wife Lucy a pair of Allbirds sneakers each in a bid at fashion diplomacy - “I’m trying to spread the comfort internationally,” she quipped.

She may have wished Turnbull was wearing the Allbirds at Kirribilli House the next day, thanks to the discomfort over the range of issues on which the two countries differ.

That’s not to say the environment was hostile: there appeared to be a genuine rapport between the two world leaders, while the usual comments about family, special ties, and “the enduring bond of partnership and strength” made an appearance.

Unwavering on deportees

But on the issue of New Zealanders’ rights, particularly those being deported from Australia to a country where they have no real ties, Turnbull was unwavering.

The process was “fair and just”, he pronounced, and Australia was simply exercising its sovereign right.

The latter is undoubtedly true, but the former is in question when, as Ardern has pointed out, some of the “Kiwis” being deported have never set foot in New Zealand before.

Domestic considerations mean Australia is highly unlikely to change its mind, a reality Labour may be reflecting on after calling on the National government to be more aggressive.

The status quo remains, although New Zealand is pushing for further relaxation of the “pathway to citizenship” - a far more palatable proposition for Australia.

There were some other curious remarks from Turnbull.

Speaking about Australia’s engagement in the Pacific as its largest donor on the heels of Winston Peters’ talk of a Pacific reset, he said he was “look[ing] forward to New Zealand stepping up as well” - a remark Ardern insisted she did not see as a dig.

Talk about New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island did not elicit much new information.

Ardern said the offer was still on the table, while Turnbull continued to rail against people-smugglers.

Even Ardern’s recent announcement that New Zealand would reinstate its Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control became an opportunity to point out divisions, with Australia opposed to the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty that New Zealand is pushing to ratify ahead of schedule.

Pacific, Iraq offer points of agreement

As Ardern pointed out, it is not new that the two countries have different perspectives on some issues, but it is a gap that seems more perilous given the uncertain state of world affairs.

There is a clear incentive for both countries to work together in the Pacific, given China’s efforts to win influence in what has traditionally been the province of Australia and New Zealand.

Neither leader named the Asian superpower by name, but Peters’ comments about China’s Belt and Road Initiative made it clear it is not only Australia with concerns.

Then there is our joint work in Iraq: Turnbull made a point of praising New Zealand’s contribution, and seemed certain to push for the NZ Defence Force to stay on past its November mandate.

Ardern has been cagey so far, but it may be a cheap price to pay to stay in Australia’s good graces, at least in one area.

Asked to name a win from the trip, she pointed to the announcement of an agreement to improve opportunities for SMEs trading between the Tasman.

While far from a huge victory, it was a sign that Ardern can forge closer ties with Australia when she sticks to the terrain that Key and Bill English trod constantly.

Ardern offered to return Turnbull’s hospitality with a barbecue on our side of the ditch - she will hope that by then, Turnbull will have settled into both his new Allbirds and relations with her new Government.

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