Bryce Edwards: Has Jacinda Ardern failed her first international test of leadership?

Bryce Edwards: Has Jacinda Ardern failed her first international test of leadership?

Is our new government doing enough about the Manus refugee crisis? Well, it’s hardly doing anything. Instead of putting pressure on the Australian Government to allow New Zealand to take refugees from Manus Island, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seems to have capitulated entirely to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the issue.

Former Labour Party leader Andrew Little has said the New Zealand Government needs to “cause international embarrassment” to Australia for not accepting New Zealand’s offer.

Little says “This is a time to step up and say, in an age of world-wide humanitarian crises, one that is on our doorstep, one that involves our nearest neighbour physically and diplomatically then we need to be applying a bit of a stiff arm on it and say, ‘we can help’.” Similarly, James Shaw has said the New Zealand Government has “a lack of spine” in dealing with the refugee crisis.

But that was then, and now Labour is leading the government. Ardern seems determined to do the opposite of what her colleagues were strongly advocating for a year ago. Instead of openly criticising and pressuring the Australian government over the humanitarian crisis they have caused at Manus Island, Ardern has mostly been running Malcolm Turnbull’s arguments for him in the New Zealand media.

New Zealand won’t call out Australia over the refugee crisis

Jacinda Ardern has embarrassed herself by being too meek with the Australian Government, according to political commentator John Armstrong – see his column: Jacinda Ardern will find ‘doing the right thing’ gets harder the longer she’s PM.

Armstrong says Ardern needs to “slam” the Australians’ for their “morally bankrupt treatment of the Manus Island refugees”. He criticises her for “meekly saying that New Zealand was in the ‘lucky position’ of not having to struggle with the refugee issue, unlike Australia. Arden will have to do better than that. She can do better than that.”

Instead, the Prime Minister has returned to New Zealand from her meeting with Turnbull, and has been parroting his lines about the need to deal with the so-called “people smugglers”, and how the US first needs to take its agreed number of refugees before New Zealand gets involved.

She told RNZ today, “I have to accept that Prime Minister Turnbull is prioritising the agreement that substantially resolves the issue at this point.” And in terms of people smugglers, she said “I agree that those who are the instigators of trying to exploit people’s fear and vulnerability by encouraging them to take to the seas should be prosecuted and should be pursued” – see: PM says she’ll keep tabs on Manus Island.

The problem is Turnbull has essentially told Ardern that, in terms of the current crisis at least, Australia retains the right to decide New Zealand’s refugee policy on who is accepted into the country. And she has simply agreed to this.

Ardern could be accused of failing her first test on the world stage – one in which she could have made a real difference. Claire Trevett reports the advice of the lawyer for the Manus Island refugees, Greg Barns, who argues this crisis “provided Ardern with a chance to stamp her mark” – see: Manus could be PM Jacinda Ardern’s ‘Tampa moment’: Australian lawyer.

Barns is quoted as saying “Helen Clark did the right thing and it would be great if Jacinda Ardern did the same. It’s a chance for New Zealand to show moral leadership, which Australia has lacked now for 20 years.”

New Zealand has been fobbed off

Some journalists are suggesting Jacinda Ardern made progress in getting the Australian Prime Minister to take New Zealand’s offer of accepting refugees more seriously. Tracy Watkins says that “Replacing a flat ‘no’ with ‘maybe later’ is a clear – if subtle – softening of the earlier rejections of the New Zealand offer” – see: Turnbull’s warm welcome for Ardern underscores continuity in trans-Tasman relations.

Another perspective is that Turnbull has simply become more diplomatic in his rejection of help from New Zealand. After all, he is now under huge pressure, with the UN condemning the situation, and even his own former Minister of Immigration, Kevin Andrews, breaking ranks to say that the Australian Government needs to more seriously consider the offer. And furthermore, the bi-partisan consensus has also broken down, with the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, also calling for the government to let the refugees go to New Zealand.

With such intense pressure to yield to New Zealand, Turnbull’s change in language was really the bare minimum of what he needed to do, while at the same time not changing his actions. As Claire Trevett writes, “it was effectively a No Delayed” – see: Key bromance haunts Jacinda Ardern’s first Australia visit.

Australia continues to justify declining New Zealand’s offer to take refugees on the basis that the US has previously agreed to take 1,250 and therefore Turnbull wants to negotiate this first before considering New Zealand’s offer. Ardern therefore suggests that New Zealand’s offer is under “active consideration” by Australia, and she has been quoted as saying “I absolutely understand the priority that has been placed around the agreement with the United States” – see Michael McGowan’s report, Turnbull says he will consider NZ refugee deal only after US resettlements.

But according to Manus refugee Behrouz Boochani, the US agreement shouldn’t be believed: “They announced the deal a year ago but only 25 people sent to America. They are only playing with us and media, it’s a fake deal to waste time” – see Newshub’s US deal a lie, choose NZ – Manus refugee.

Similarly, Gordon Campbell suggests negotiations with the US will take a very long time, and therefore concludes that “Sooner rather than later, New Zealand has to stand up to Australia over its refugee policy. Otherwise, our silence and inaction will be taken as tacit acceptance, and we will be seen (accurately) as enabling Canberra’s systematically inhuman treatment of hundreds of the world’s most vulnerable people, and their families. The clock is now ticking on Ardern’s personal timetable” – see: On Ardern’s refugee non-deal.

Doing nothing of any substance about the crisis raises questions about whether the new Labour-led coalition government is complicit in Australia’s abusive operations. New Green MP – and former refugee – Golriz Ghahraman has been outspoken about the issue, being reported as saying “New Zealand’s silence has made it complicit in human rights abuse in Australian offshore detention” – see RNZ’s MP calls NZ’s Manus Island silence ‘complicity’.

And blogger David Farrar says this criticism could equally be applied to her own government – see: Is a Green MP calling Labour complicit in human rights violations?

New Zealand won’t take the refugees directly from Manus Island

Many are now suggesting that because Australia has abandoned the refugees, the New Zealand government should be able to simply rescue them without getting Australia’s prior approval. This is best expressed by Brian Rudman in his column, Time for a little gunboat diplomacy. He says, “It’s time to shame our Australian cousins by dispatching a naval vessel to Manus Island to rescue the 600 or so refugees trapped on Australia’s very own Devil’s Island.”

But Jacinda Ardern ruled this out today, because of New Zealand’s formal offer to the Australians: “No, no, because the offer is still under active consideration by Australia so there is no need to do so” – see Jane Patterson’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won’t bypass Australia over Manus.

On this, Gordon Campbell says: “For her part, Ardern has chosen not to confront Australia and has agreed to delay making the NZ resettlement offer directly to Papua New Guinea. Given the glacial pace of the US response, and the urgency of the humanitarian crisis on Manus, there is no justification for not proceeding with an approach to PNG right now.”

It also has to be pointed out that the current offer to Australia isn’t particularly radical, given the circumstances. Lawyer Felix Geiringer‏ (@BarristerNZ) has tweeted: “There is a humanitarian crises happening on our doorstep. It is time for more drastic action. Merely repeating John Key’s offer is not enough.” For other examples of social media reaction, see my blog post, Top tweets about the Australia-Manus-NZ situation.

Leftwing blogger Daphna Whitmore also points out that the current offer really isn’t generous: “It is the smallest of gestures from a country that does very little to extend a welcome to refugees. There are over 22 million refugees in the world and New Zealand is ranked at the bottom of the developed world when it comes taking refugees. Overall New Zealand is 110th in the world for refugees per capita adjusted for GDP. The offer to take 150 refugees is not in addition to the modest annual 1000 refugee intake. Ardern, like Key before her, made it clear this to be within the quota” – see: Manus Island: “It’s f******* disgraceful”.

RadioLive talkback host Alison Mau is advocating that New Zealand take all of the Manus Island refugees, saying “I can’t think of a nobler, more important contribution for our Prime Minister to make as her first political legacy, something that would be remembered as a source of pride for generations to come” – see: Tampa rescue is point of pride – but we’re too gutless to do it again.

Finally, for the brave speech that the New Zealand Prime Minister should have made if she wanted to truly make a principled stand in the weekend, see Toby Manhire’s Hey mate, this Manus thing’s got to stop. It includes the line: “Talk is cheap, I get that, and my government will be judged on the extent to which it all adds up to more than warm fuzziness.”