In January, New Zealand’s new Trade Minister Damien O’Connor suggested Australia should speak with more “respect” and “diplomacy” towards China. Shortly after the television interview, Morrison and Ardern spoke on the phone.
It wasn’t a dressing down; the Australian Prime Minister calmly stated his frustrations with the comments and Ardern was receptive to his concerns.
A few weeks earlier the country’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta had offered to mediate a truce between Canberra and Beijing, saying “both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye”. It was a remarkable proposition that a minister just months into the job could solve one of the thornier diplomatic problems in the world.
Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and senior Australian diplomats could barely hide their frustration at Mahuta’s and O’Connor’s comments. They believe it was harmful to the region’s security and an awful case of “false equivalence” that sent a bad message to regional allies, according to senior figures in the government familiar with the matter.
Australia has been slapped with billions of dollars in trade strikes from Beijing over the past year and the Chinese government has refused to return phone calls from Australian ministers. The last thing Canberra needed was its close ally sending a signal to the region that Australia and New Zealand were not united.
While Morrison let Ardern know of his concerns, O’Connor phoned his counterpart, Dan Tehan, to apologise days after the interview on American business channel CNBC in which he made the remarks.
Senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were then told there wouldn’t be a repeat of O’Connor and Mahuta’s comments; the rookie ministers had apparently been reined in. In her first major speech as foreign minister last week, Mahuta called Australia “our only formal ally and an indispensable partner across the breadth of our international interests”.
Senior figures in the Morrison government separate Ardern’s public criticisms of Australia over deportations and citizenship revocations from the comments from O’Connor and Mahuta on China.
Ardern’s criticisms have always centred on issues affecting New Zealand, while the interventions from her ministers had nothing to do with her country and were deeply unhelpful to Australia.
It is good Mahuta and O’Connor have been reined in. Their comments were very ill-judged and just emboldens China.