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The Trans-Tasman Spat Show: New Zealand-Australian Tensions

It was an awkward moment for Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. News had arrived that a New Zealand government had been formed after a lengthy period of deliberation. (The election took place on September 23).

Veteran maverick and occasional political suicide Winston Peters of the New Zealand First party had played the familiar role of kingmaker, picking the New Zealand Labour party to form government. The 37 year old leader, Jacinda Ardern, was evidently too good to fob off.

This placed the Australian government in a prize pickle. Australian ministers had more or less designated the NZ Labour party persona non grata after questions were asked, in the NZ parliament, about matters of that country’s citizenship.

These queries all seemed provincial and inconsequential, but had potential consequences for Australia’s own deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce. Joyce, it seemed, had been a New Zealand citizen when elected to the Australian parliament, thereby rendering him ineligible to sit. (The High Court will, in time, rule on that point).

Ardern had her own description of the events. “Yes, someone from the ALP put some legal question to [NZ Labour frontbencher Chris Hipkins] around citizenship. No mention was made of anyone’s name, no rationale for any particular case being pursued was ever raised.”

Bishop proceeded to have a distinctly anti-diplomatic meltdown. Culprits were needed, scalps sought. “New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government, I would find it very difficult to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.” This was particularly so given that “members of a political party […] had been used by the Australian Labor Party to seek to undermine the Australian government.”

Ardern was left puzzled, offering to placate the indignant, glacial Bishop. “I will not let false claims stand in the way of that relationship.” She would have called the irate Australian foreign minister to chat about matters, but did not have her personal number.

Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, offered an analysis that was not much better. The issue was less with Ardern than the conduct of the Australian Labor Party, filled with its fifth columnist apparatchiks. Its leader, Bill Shorten, had been “willing to interfere in the political system of a foreign country.” Shorten was no less than a conspiratorial thief hoping to, in Turnbull’s words, “steal government” in collusion with “a foreign power”. Foreign, conspiracy, stealing – all words fashioned from the modern news desk of insurgent politics and cock-eyed fantasy.

It was difficult, then, to reconcile this language of hyperventilating insurgency, subversion and Putin-like destabilisation with the prospect of an Ardern government. Much egg had to be washed from the face.

Turnbull took to Twitter to congratulate the new plotting leader, claiming to look forward to “building on our two nations’ great partnership.” At a Friday morning press conference, the questions pushed and prodded: How would Bishop cope with this enemy entity across the Tasman? The minister had crept rather gingerly into a more diplomatic shell. The relationship between the countries was strong.

Much of this will pass, leaving its characteristic bitter residue. The relationship between these two countries has tended to be a matter of sibling consternation and rhetorical friendship. New Zealand tends to have been far more realistic than its enormous neighbour, keeping out of militarist games while focusing on being, at points, a good international citizen.

Both countries have also produced their fair share of misplaced, provincial smugness. Former New Zealand prime minister, Robert Muldoon, famously claimed that his country’s “emigration to Australia raises the IQ in both countries.”

The same prime minister was livid at the unsportsmanlike approach taken by the Australian cricket team in a 1981 one-day international match that still haunts its participants. After the Australian bowler, Trevor Chappell, was asked by captain and brother Greg to deliver the last delivery as an underarm, Muldoon deemed it “an act of cowardice appropriate to a team playing in yellow.”

A persistent theme, in fact, emerges: the leaders of New Zealand and Australia have often disliked each other. Muldoon had little time for his counterpart in Canberra, Malcolm Fraser. Australia’s longest serving Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, could barely stomach David Lange.

Lange, in turn, thought Hawke crude and cloyingly trapped by the language of masculinity. “His language was frequently obscene and he was steeped in the culture of mateship, which for me was never a good starting point.”[2]

Even beyond the point of personalities, Lange’s explicit renunciation of the US nuclear deterrent threatened the ANZUS alliance and drove Hawke, an unabashed fan of the United States, to distraction.

Things become rather touchy with the rejection by the Lange government of a proposed visit by the USS Buchanan in February 1985. US officials refused to answer queries put to them as to whether the warship had a nuclear capability. “Whatever the truth of its armaments,” asserted Lange, “its arrival in New Zealand would be seen as a surrender by the government.” US Secretary of State George Schultz retaliated by suspending ANZUS links and security assurances.

An Ardern-Turnbull relationship, to that end, will conform to cosmetics, keep up appearances and utter the necessary platitudes international, and often fictional friendships, thrive on. The rest of the time will be spent diligently ignoring each other.


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  1. Aortic

    I’m an Ardern fan of NU Zelland and think Bishop should put on her best designer clobber, jump on her broomstick, and fly over there and apologise for her distasetful and defamatory remarks.

  2. Miriam English

    Aortic, have a conservative politician admit they were wrong??? When hell freezes over, perhaps.

  3. Aortic

    Yeah, what was I thinking Miriam. The cold wet and windy weather has obviously fogged my brain.

  4. etnorb

    I used to think that Jewelry Bishop was almost a decent politician. But recent events have definitely stopped that! After her comments about & to the NZ Labor party re the supposed “interference” by them in our (her?) politics, I have come to realise that she is yet just another inept, lying, obscenely over-paid excuse for a politician. What crap will she come up with now that NZ has the Labor party in power?

  5. helvityni

    I learnt last night that Jacinta is NZ’s third female PM ( I thought she was the second), yet in Oz we could not get rid of our first and only female PM quick enough. It did not matter that Julia was a very competent one….

    Not even the sophisticated well dressed French judge their leaders by the gear they wear…

    Of course not so long ago people had a totally opposite problem: Keating was TOO smartly attired.

    Maybe it was just that both Gillard and Keating were Labor siders…?

  6. helvityni

    Helen Clarke did worry about trivia, she was interested in doing her best for her people…

  7. JohnI

    Piggy Muldoon’s “emigration to Australia raises the IQ in both countries” line wasn’t original. He borrowed it from the American writer Will Rogers, who made the comment in relation to the Okies heading to California in the Dust Bowl era. (Rogers was an Oklahoma native.)

  8. Robert

    Binoy, before the 2016 US Election, our politicians rubbished Trump non-stop, somehow not understanding that if he was elected they’d have to back-peddle on diplomacy. The NZ experience with PM Ardern proves that the LNP has trouble learning stuff.
    The citizenship spat with Bishop is nothing really. What’s really going to stick in the LNP craw is why Labor won with the help of NZ First.
    4 main issues drove votes resulting in an alliance between Labor and NZ First:
    housing affordability, immigration, environment and tax breaks for the wealthiest.
    All these issues are dear to the LNP here also, as the stratification of the economy into a small number of winners and lots of losers depends on no equitable policy changes.

  9. townsvilleblog

    Aortic I can only agree with your rather precise description of the situation.

  10. Miriam English

    Robert, it’s probably that the LNP politicians are so focussed on theatrics they think learning stuff is unnecessary — they believe Australians are so stupid that any mistakes can be simply papered over with more theatrics.

    As for NZ Labor winning with the assistance of NZ First, there’s an interesting lesson there. Perhaps One Nation and other lunatic fringe parties can be persuaded that assisting a tiny number of mega-wealthy people to become even more wealthy at the expense of those parties’ voters is a bad idea. I’d love for the Greens to win on such an understanding, but at this point I’d settle for just the LNP to get tipped out of office. Unfortunately Labor in QLD are proving to be little different from the LNP — less nastily dictatorial, but still hell-bent on destruction of the Reef and more theft of Aboriginal land.

  11. townsvilleblog

    Robert, I appreciated your link and I noted how ready conservative politicians are to send soldiers to foreign fields to have their heads blown off, labour not so much…

  12. townsvilleblog

    Miriam they do think we are stupid, they really believe that they are a ‘class’ above us, that they are brilliant and we are stoopid!

  13. townsvilleblog

    Miriam, I am ashamed of the Qld govt, so right wing they should join the Liberal National Party with the Adani rubbish, then I received a change petition today that tells me that the Townsville Mayor received nearly 1.5 million dollars in gifts from Mr. Adani and now she has committed ratepayers money to build Adani an $18.5 million dollar airfield. I sent her the Change petition and told her how angry I was that she was using ratepayers {including mine} money, especially when she has sacked 300 council workers recently.

  14. diannaart

    J Bishop: “New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government, I would find it very difficult to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.”

    Declaring a lack of trust BEFORE an election? J Bishop attempting to “undermine” New Zealand’s electoral process?

    All you need to be a RWNJ is no sense of hypocrisy, followed by no sense.

  15. Miriam English

    townsvilleblog, yep, I signed the same petition. I guess it’s true that politicians are like bananas:
    They start off straight and green, and become bent and yellow.

    diannaart, I’m surprised I didn’t notice that. Bishop was clearly meddling in the NZ election, attempting to influence it. God! They are such hypocritical crooks. Defies belief.

  16. diannaart


    I do believe New Zealand gave Ms Bishop the full consideration she deserved.

  17. Zathras

    It was Bishop’s point-scoring big ugly mouth that escalated this inconvenient embarrassment into an international matter.

    When it comes to trampling over anybody if there’s a chance it would help her personally she’s truly in the Trump class of diplomacy.

    Her treatment of dying asbestos workers while she was a lawyer demonstrates this well.

    As for the citizenship status of Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Roberts in particular, I’m surprised she hasn’t come out complaining about “immigrants taking Australian jobs”. It would be certainly different if they were Labor MPs.

  18. Glenn Barry

    The Julie Bishop Trio (Julie and her earrings) seem to be smeared constantly all over TV – I wonder if the COALition have a sense of foreboding of their political fate with the NZ election result?

  19. Max Gross

    Proven, once and for all: the LNP are every bit as deranged as Trump!

  20. paul walter

    Bishop wears a mask, but every so often the characteristic nastiness shines through. Narrow, peevish, curmudgeonly, as are the rest of the Tories when it comes to the NZ election and many other issues.

  21. wam

    Did lange ask whether the ships would be carrying atomic weapons? Whatever hawke and the wowser didn’t get on. So it was AxxUS for a while.

    Poor old julie so arrogant that she slagged NZ Labour because she never thought of a Labour PM.
    It is possible peters took this into account to embarrass Australia by selecting Labour. What an enjoyable thought?
    Barnaby Aust born roberts overseas born not in the same group. No foreign gov can legislate Aust birth away. We can but with refugees and that is disgusting!!!

  22. Johno

    I lived under Muldoon (NZ) and was VERY glad when he was removed.

  23. diannaart


    I cannot stop thinking that Julie thought she was being so very clever – both the Australian and New Zealand labour parties in one snide swipe.

    Am also thinking that NZ’s new PM Ardern is very adept and more than a match for any of our (far too numerous) gauche politicians.

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