Bryce Edwards: The case for diplomacy over refugees

Bryce Edwards: The case for diplomacy over refugees

Is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s campaign over the Manus Island refugee situation causing serious damage to Trans-Tasman relations? And is it even in the best interests of refugees?

Yesterday I looked at the arguments for the New Zealand government taking a harder line on the refugee crisis – see: The case for less talk, more action on Manus Island refugees. But many are making the opposite case – warning that New Zealand should be more cautious and constructive in dealing with the issue. Below are the arguments for the New Zealand government backing away from its increasingly vocal and strident approach.

Warnings and threats from Australia

The Australian Government continues to push back at New Zealand’s diplomatic intervention over the Manus Island refugees and appears increasingly irritated by Ardern’s campaign to take 150 of the refugees (which was an offer originally made by her predecessor, John Key.)

The latest pushback is from Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who has talked frankly about the situation. He is reported saying that New Zealand is technically free to directly negotiate with Papua New Guinea so as to take some of the refugees, but this would come at the cost of a diminished relationship with his country. For the best report on this, see Stephen Dziedzic’s ABC article, Manus Island: Peter Dutton takes swipe at NZ’s offer of funding for services.

Dutton states that New Zealand “would have to think about their relationship with Australia and what impact it would have”, and “They’d have to think that through, and we’d have to think that through.”

Dutton was also disparaging about New Zealand’s announcement of aid money to help with the situation in Manus Island and Nauru: “Well, it’s a waste of money in my judgement, I mean give that money to another environment somewhere, to Indonesia for example”.

That article also reports that Dutton is heavily pushing the line that New Zealand is being hypocritical criticising Australia’s refugee policy while at the same time being the beneficiary of it: “He also took a thinly veiled swipe at New Zealand by arguing it benefited from Australia’s tough border protection policies without paying for them.”

The minister said: “We have stopped vessels on their way across the Torres Strait planning to track their way down the east coast of Australia to New Zealand… We have put many hundreds of millions of dollars into a defence effort to stop those vessels… We do that frankly without any financial assistance from New Zealand… If new boats arrive tomorrow those people aren’t going to Auckland, they’re going to Nauru.”

Australia use the media to retaliate

In speaking out for the abandoned refugees on Manus Island, and others in detention centres, New Zealand is going to have to endure some hostile and powerful retaliation from Australia. The Australian Government is clearly striking back by leaking information to the media in a bid to undermine Ardern’s position. The latest, today, involves allegations of sexual abuse involving some of the refugees – see Luke Malpass and Stacey Kirk’s news report, Australian intelligence leak on Manus Island details allegations of underage sex crimes.

The article states “It is understood the Turnbull Government is furious with what it views as Ardern’s ‘moral posturing and naivety’ on the matter.”

Similarly, RNZ interviewed a “New Zealand man who worked at the Manus Island refugee detention facility” who is “warning the government against taking any refugees, saying the ones still at the centre are dangerous men”, and “They are not the calibre of people you want to come into a country and try and re-establish themselves” – see: Don’t take them – warning from a former Manus Island guard, as well as RNZ’s Manus Island refugees refute former guard’s claims.

This all follows on from another news story, published earlier in the week in the Australian Courier Mail newspaper, supposedly informed by classified government information and purporting that there was increased “chatter” amongst people smugglers about sending boats of refugees to New Zealand. It was also alleged that at some stage Australia had intercepted four boats headed to New Zealand, with 164 people on board.

Vernon Small reports that this tactic “particularly irked Ardern and her team”, and he says “both sides are using back channels to make their anger clear” – see: Behind Apec niceties, Trans-Tasman tensions run high over refugees.

Small says there is no doubt tensions are rising: “Make no mistake. Behind the smiles and the Trans-Tasman handshakes, tensions are running high. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s increasingly insistent push for Australia to send 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru our way is facing an intensifying push-back.”

National’s criticisms

Unsurprisingly, the National Party is leading the charge against the coalition government’s refugee stance. Leader Bill English is scathing, suggesting Ardern is simply playing political games over the issue, rather than acting out of principle. He says: “The issue is to what extent is our Prime Minister making a showpiece out of this, knowing full well that the Australians are very unlikely to take up the offer” – see Jane Patterson’s National Party questions PM on Manus progress.

English is also quoted saying “We need a constructive relationship with Australia to help manage any potential for boat people to head to New Zealand and the way the Prime Minister’s making a show of trying to put pressure on them isn’t going to help that relationship” – see Jane Patterson’s PM denies NZ becoming a soft target for people smuggling.

What could the government stand to gain by its stance over the refugees? English says “I think it’s just part of trying to balance up with her own constituency signing the TPP. A lot of the people who supported the Prime Minister and the Labour Party were opposed to the TPP… This kind of talk, probably, about Manus Island probably makes them feel a bit better” – see Michael Daly’s PM’s Manus Island push a deflection from TPP – Bill English.

Similarly, in the latest Listener magazine Jane Clifton suggests that it was only after progress was made on the free trade agreement that “Ardern abruptly revisited her offer to take some Manus Island and Nauru detainees from Australia”. Together with her harder line on Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Clifton says that this is an attempt at distraction, essentially shouting “Look over here, human rights!” Clifton says that Ardern “was sending a message to CPTTP refuseniks at home: at least this PM is prepared to confront other leaders about uncomfortable issues, even at the expense of souring relations.”

(Incidentally, today, William Maley writes in the Herald that Malcom Turnbull’s stance on the refugees is also driven by domestic politics – see: Turnbull plays for One Nation votes by declining NZ’s offer on refugees)

National has continued to push the line that the coalition government is being juvenile and petty, with Judith Collins going on The AM Show this morning admonishing the prime minister, saying “It’s not student politics time. This is where she’s going to have to step up a bit. She is going to have to learn from Winston Peters that you actually do have to be a little bit more statesman-like when you’re overseas and representing New Zealand” – see Newshub’s Refugee deal isn’t ‘student politics’ – Judith Collins.

Mike Hosking has some similar views, arguing that New Zealand is doing itself no favours by getting offside with Australia: “By bugging Turnbull, by yapping at him over and over, we are looking dangerously like we want to score points. And as Winston Peters pointed out in one of his rare recent forays into the public arena, he quite rightly said our current relationship with our biggest trading partner is at a low ebb” – see: Yapping at Australia over and over will only make our relationship worse.

Hosking says the New Zealand government’s approach is unfortunately based on “guilt” and emotions, and “we are running the very real risk of getting up Australia’s nose. The more we push, the worse it gets, because it has a tinge of the embarrassment about it.”

Ardern has responded to questions about the state of the Trans-Tasman relationship, saying she still had a “strong” relationship with Turnbull and that the current differences wouldn’t do long-term damage: “New Zealand’s always been in a position of advocating for itself; for its position. That’s nothing new, we have a strong relationship… This relationship has such depth, that it rides above any political issue of the day, that continues to be the case” – see Laura Walters’ Jacinda Ardern says it’ll take more than Manus Island tensions to hurt the trans-Tasman relationship.

Direct intervention in PNG could make everything worse

How would Australia respond to New Zealand negotiating directly with Papua New Guinea, to take the refugees? According to Chris Trotter, Australia is not a country New Zealand should want to get offside with, as it is “a regime prepared to be almost unbelievably ruthless and brutal in the pursuit of its national objectives” – see: Australia: Seeing what we have to see. For example, he says that it’s “a nation able to break the New Zealand economy at will”.

And how would PNG respond to an approach from New Zealand? Trotter paints a picture: “The government of Papua-New Guinea is almost entirely in the thrall of the Australian Government – its former colonial master. Ostensibly a democracy, the country is, in fact, a corrupt kleptocracy whose senior ministers are pretty-much the bought-and-paid-for playthings of Canberra. Were we to ask Port Moresby if it was willing to allow New Zealand to take 150 detainees off their hands, its officials would simply pick up the phone and ask Canberra if that would be okay.  Canberra would say ‘No!’ – and that would be that.”

There is also an argument that, by taking the refugees, New Zealand would undermine the success of Australia’s policy to discourage refugees and people smugglers from sending the boats. This argument is put well by David Farrar, who says that although the tough refugee policy might seem “nasty”, it has been incredibly effective in stopping the dangerous activity in which many people lose their lives on ill-advised boat journeys – see: The other side of Manus Island.

Here’s Farrar’s main point: “The former ‘kind’ policy saw hundreds drown at sea. I’m not sure there is any good way to die, but I am sure that a very bad way to die is in the middle of the ocean in a storm in an over-crowded boat. And many of those drowned were kids. So the ‘kind’ policy saw over 1,200 asylum seekers drown horribly at sea. The ‘nasty’ policy has seen that number reduce to zero. Not ten, Not five but zero. And it has been zero for four years in a row.”

Finally, for a satirical take on the whole refugee issue over recent years, see my blog post, New Zealand cartoons about refugees.