New Zealand-Australia relations might never be the same again. The current "war of words" between senior politicians on both sides of the Tasman is so unprecedented that it all poses the bigger question of whether the trans-Tasman relationship is actually dying.
Certainly, some very strong words have been spoken in the last week by the Australian and New Zealand governments – mostly about issues of deportation, human rights, and regional security. This rift was highlighted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) 30-minute programme: Don't Call Australia Home!, which was hosted by ex-Wallaby, Peter FitzSimons.
The programme said: "Australia is detaining, cuffing and deporting more New Zealanders than any other group." FitzSimons also explained many of the issues in an accompanying article, New Zealand ministers criticise Australia's deportation laws. This centred in on a former New Zealand soldier, Ko Haapu, who had previously been "assigned to the personal security detail of then New Zealand prime minister John Key", but was locked up for five months, then deported from Australia after having apparently committed no crimes, but joining a motorcycle gang.
Here's FitzSimons' conclusion to Haapu's story: "For five months, he was held in prison without charge and told he would be staying there until the long legal process took its course, or until such time as he agreed to sign the papers which would see him quickly deported to New Zealand. When Mr Haapu did finally sign the papers, he found himself at Perth International Airport, in handcuffs and ankle bracelets — connected by a chain — being escorted onto an Auckland-bound plane by officers who stayed with him the whole way there, until they could be sure Australia was safely rid of him. All this without charge."
This all relates to the Australian Government's new deportation laws, introduced in 2014. Elaborating on this, the programme explained: "Australia tossed out more than 1300 Kiwis in the past three years – more than any other nationality. Meanwhile New Zealand ejected just nine Australians. Lawyers expect up to 15,000 New Zealanders could be deported in the next 10 years." And FitzSimons wanted to know: "Is this how we treat an old mate?"
Andrew Little's "war of words"
In the ABC programme New Zealand's Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, described Australia's politics as "venal" – possibly the strongest word that has been aired publicly by a New Zealand Government talking about its "mate". It was said in the context of Little's attempt to explain how the Australian Government had come to adopt such harsh deportation policies: "Look it might suit Aussie politics and it seems to me there is a venal political strain to all this".
According to Little, such politics are "certainly not consistent with any humanitarian ideals that I thought both countries once shared", and he added that the laws meant Australia "doesn't look like (New Zealand's) best friend, our nearest neighbour".
On Friday, Little elaborated on what he meant by "venal", saying: "My comment about venality was about the fact that the politics in Australia suggest some widespread attraction to treating people from other countries ... in this sort of this way… I think there are plenty of politicians in Australia who hide behind that political calculus and I think that political calculus is venal" – see Lucy Bennett's Peter Dutton vows to continue deportations following criticism from Andrew Little.
This article also reports the views of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who has responded very strongly to Little's criticisms, speaking of his "disappointment", and suggesting that Little should "reflect a little more" on the relationship before daring to repeats his comments. Dutton also said: "There's a lot that we do for New Zealand... We're a big land mass between them and boats coming from Indonesia and Southeast Asia… New Zealand don't contribute really anything to the defence effort that we've got where we're trying to surveil boats that might be on their way to New Zealand."
But Little has refused to back down, and late last week he told Henry Cooke that Australia's policy on deportations "is improper and I think it is a breach of human rights". Furthermore, Little said: "Detention for that length of time without charge... I can't think of another liberal democratic country like New Zealand, like Australia, like many other Western countries in the world, where that would be tolerated" – see: Andrew Little stands by comments on Australia's deportations after Aussie minister sledges him.
The fact that people can be deported on the grounds of their "character" is "particularly egregious", according to Little. And on RNZ on Friday, Little said the "character" test "is very nebulous, very airy fairy and could be used for all sorts of things and on a human rights basis that's not right".
And being the Minister responsible for security intelligence issues, he rejected Peter Dutton's statements about New Zealand not pulling its weight in regional security, telling Cooke: "I can say with my SIS/GCSB portfolio hat on that I'm totally confident about the value that New Zealand makes to our security, our regional security, and our international security."
In the weekend, Little also spoke out further about his prior accusation that Australia has bungled the extradition process between the two countries – see Australia Sky News' 6-minute video interview with him: 'Extradition between NZ and Australia should be 'barrier free': Andrew Little.
Winston Peters' broadsides against Australia
If it was only Justice Minister Andrew Little who was striking out at Australia, then the current "war of words" might be seen as an aberration. But Minister of Foreign Affairs and Acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters has been just as vocal.
Earlier this month Peters struck out against Australia over its detention of a 17-year-old New Zealander, which he said was in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Peters said bluntly: "This person is a child, or a minor and I'm just reminding the Australians 'you're a signatory, live up to it.' They are clearly in breach of it. There's no complication. They know that, we know that" – see Claire Trevett's Acting PM Winston Peters challenges Australia on Kiwi teen's detention.
John Armstrong commends Peters for his stance in his column, Peters has not put a foot wrong since stepping into Acting PM role. Armstrong writes: "This is not the side of the law and order argument where you would normally expect to find Peters and New Zealand First. However, he has provided by far the strongest denunciation of Australia's warped thinking. Unlike the feeble response of New Zealand's previous National-led Government to Australia's introduction of this crude means of cleansing itself of criminals, Peters has displayed both the guts and the gumption to go where National feared to tread."
Armstrong also makes it very clear as to his own feelings about "Australia's despicable detention and deportation" policies. He says: "That process is both unjust and inhumane. It imposes a further sentence on many offenders who have already served time in an Australian jail. It imposes intolerable pressures on those locked away in detention centres far from their families".
He's not alone – most New Zealand commentators seem united on the issues. For example, The Press newspaper has published an editorial lamenting the lack of principles in Australian politicians, and agreeing with Andrew Little's statement that it's "improper" to be deporting "New Zealanders who identify as Australian residents and have lived most or nearly all of their lives there" – see: Australians are not always good neighbours. The newspaper suggests that the word "improper" is, in fact, "too polite a word for the heartless and callous way that Australia has been acting."
Blogger No Right Turn goes even further, questioning whether New Zealand and Australia really do have the "shared values" they used to, due to the apparent decline in the values of our neighbour – see: F*** Australia. He concludes: "They're even walking away from their supposed 'mateship'. They're no longer the sort of country a modern democracy can or should count as a friend. As their closest neighbour and oldest friend, this is something we should be speaking out against, not keeping silent on."
A dying relationship
John Armstrong suggests in his column that "New Zealand is no longer going to play the role of doormat" to Australia and, indeed, there are all sorts of signs at the moment that the previously-close relationship is over.
This is emphasised in an Asian Times article by Alan Boyd, who reports on the latest spats: "Bound by deep economic ties and a century of wartime comraderie stretching back to the World War I bloodbath at Gallipoli, relations have sunk to their lowest point in years" – see: Australia, New Zealand in a duel over deportations.
Here in New Zealand, Barry Soper says something big has changed: "Long gone are the days when we affectionately looked across the ditch and saw the Aussies as an extension of ourselves. They've become the ugly underbelly of the friendship we once had. The unequal treatment of tax-paying Kiwis living there is one thing, but it's the deportation of what they say are New Zealand criminals, those who've supposedly been sentenced to more than a year in jail, that should have us all in a fury" – see: Aussies the ugly underbelly of friendship we once had.
Soper points to the next potential clash: "Winston Peters has often said he's not into megaphone diplomacy but when he meets his Foreign Affairs counterpart Julie Bishop in Sydney next month let's hope he packs a megaphone – and puts it to her delicate ear."
Julie Bishop has already, of course, expressed her lack of faith in the politicians running New Zealand. As the Guardian's Eleanor Ainge Roy explains, she was outspoken last year, prior to the New Zealand election, saying "she would find it 'very difficult to build trust' with a New Zealand Labour government following the accusations that the party had colluded with the Australian Labor party in an attempt to 'bring down' the Turnbull government" – see: Bad neighbours? Australia and New Zealand 'not friends' after deportation row.
The same article quotes Australian National University political scientist Prof John Wanna forecasting the death of the close trans-Tasman relations: "I think in 20 years New Zealand won't be any different in status to Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa ... it will be a long-term shift". He also says "New Zealand is becoming less special and Australia is trying to treat it like any other overseas country."
Eleanor Ainge Roy also reports that "seasoned Trans-Tasman watchers agree the level of frustration and tit-for-tat rhetoric between the two countries has reached new levels, and demonstrates a pivotal, long-term restructuring of the once unshakeable Anzac alliance."
Finally, I talked yesterday with RadioLive's Trudi Nelson about the current trans-Tasman "war of words", and argued that politicians in both countries probably have good electoral reasons to continue this war.