Ardern in Oz: Little progress but much adulation

Jacinda Ardern’s Melbourne trip wrapped up with nothing to show on longstanding trans-Tasman concerns, and another flare-up looming ever closer. But the visit was a potent reminder of the Prime Minister’s appeal to those beyond New Zealand’s borders, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

It is a common, if cliched, saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

On that basis, Jacinda Ardern may have grounds to question her state of mind after yet another unsuccessful attempt to take on Australia over its deportation of so-called “Kiwis” with little to no connection with their New Zealand birthplace.

There were no serious expectations that the Prime Minister’s discussions with Australian leader Scott Morrison would result in any meaningful changes, given Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne rebuffed any thought of a policy shift during a New Zealand visit barely a fortnight ago.

Yet Ardern dutifully raised the topic, telling reporters: “If something’s wrong and if something is not fair and unjust, you don’t let it go.”

The innate legality of Australia’s policy (questionable ethics aside) makes it difficult for New Zealand to do anything other than voice its discontent, barring some sort of retaliatory action – although that was an option Ardern took off the table as not our country’s way.

“From a principled perspective, that hasn’t been the way we’ve undertaken our foreign policy...I don’t think two wrongs make a right.”

Given the “corrosive” nature of Australia’s approach, as she has put it, it’s far from clear what can be done to halt the slow erosion of goodwill between the two countries.

RBNZ raised? Ardern won't say

If that wasn’t enough, there is also the growing, public discomfort of Australia’s financial institutions and commentators with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s newly tough approach to regulation on those operating in New Zealand.

Asked whether the RBNZ’s actions had been raised in the room, Ardern subtly narrowed the scope of the question in her response: “Not by PM Morrison.”

Pressed again, she would not confirm or deny whether it was brought up by any of the other Australian officials present, leaving anyone watching to form their own, likely incriminating, conclusions.

“What matters to me is whether or not it was raised by PM Morrison and it wasn’t...I saw absolutely no interest from him in discussing the issue.”

He may not be, but Australia’s banks and insurers certainly are, and there was a mild sense of awkwardness when senior Australian public servant Martin Parkinson off-handedly mentioned former Prime Minister and ANZ chairman John Key’s frequent trips to the Lucky Country.

Of course, it was not all gloom and doom: there was audible laughter behind the closed doors of their morning tea, while in front of the press Morrison offered a pink bunny for Neve and commiserations for New Zealand’s heartbreaking “defeat” in the Cricket World Cup final.

There was also time for the pair and their partners to take a selfie – a sight that was also all too common in the crowd for the main set piece of Ardern’s trip, a speech for the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG).

The hype for Ardern's Melbourne speech on good government seemed an odd fit for the topic. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The Prime Minister was due to deliver her remarks in late March as part of the ANZSOG’s “Patterson Oration”, before the Christchurch attack forced a change of plans.

It could be argued her new speech was an upgrade: instead of speaking in somebody else’s honour, the event was billed on social media as #TheArdernAddress.

A line of chattering attendees snaked around the block, while inside an organist blared out renditions of Crowded House and Lorde’s “Royals” as pictures of Ardern played on two big screens – you could almost have been forgiven for mistaking it as a religious service, or a funeral.

But the mood was anything but funereal as the Prime Minister made her entrance.

ABC journalist Virginia Trioli, acting as the night’s MC, attempted to calm down what she described as “two thousand people ...waiting madly to fan-girl and fan-boy” Ardern.

“I feel you’d like to applaud – go ahead, get it out of your system.”

And in a formal Welcome to Country, Aboriginal elder “Aunty” Joy Murphy Wandin hailed her as “a solid downpour of inspiration”.

“You are the face of honesty, the eye of integrity, and you have the heart of an angel.”

"If the country has a 2.6 percent GDP growth rate, but its indigenous people aren’t thriving, are we truly in good health?”

With that introduction, it was surprising Ardern walked rather than levitated onto the stage, where in a well-written if predictable speech she outlined her vision for good government in a global climate of fear and distrust.

“Around the world, democratic values and institutions are under threat in a way that many of us never expected to see in our lifetimes.

 “Nationalist sentiment that closes off the possibility of countries working together is surging. Authoritarian movements and regimes are on the rise.

“Norms that we in New Zealand and Australia take for granted – the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of expression – are being challenged in new and more explicit ways.”

The answer? According to Ardern, her Government’s Wellbeing Budget and its state sector reforms, both designed to take a wider view of what should constitute sound financial management and good governance.

“After all, if the country has a 2.6 percent GDP growth rate, but its indigenous people aren’t thriving, are we truly in good health?”

That is a potent message, and one that may explain why the big corporates are worried about what her style of governance may mean for them.

A powerful megaphone

But the rapturous reception provoked a sense of cognitive dissonance, the adoration in which she is held abroad set against the struggles dogging her administration at home.

One optimistic Australian museum used Ardern’s photo opportunity with Victoria Governor Linda Dessau to plug the 19th-century chairs that were in shot, while a wag calling himself “Scott from Canberra” used an interactive set-up for Ardern’s speech to offer the (unused) question: “Have you got any tips for being a decent, authentic leader?”

Speaking to media the next day, she predictably brushed off any suggestion Morrison needed to follow her lead, while she also shied away from offering tips on how to form a better relationship with Australia’s Aboriginal community, citing New Zealand’s “imperfect record”.

“Loathe be it for us to ever tell any other country how to conduct itself, because we have not been a picture of perfection by any stretch.”

That was wise, given the outrage still being vented back home over Oranga Tamariki’s uplifts of Maori babies and children.

But Ardern’s value as a symbol of progressive ideals is clear to see, even if her ability to deliver on those ideals is far from proven – and with her attempt to reform social media through the Christchurch Call likely to come up at the United Nations later this year, it will be interesting to see how much she can do with her megaphone.

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