Political Roundup: Jacinda Ardern’s masterful performance against Scott Morrison

Political Roundup: Jacinda Ardern’s masterful performance against Scott Morrison

If there were any doubts about Jacinda Ardern’s ability to deliver the goods as a campaigner, then they were quashed by her masterful performance against Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday.

Ardern made what is being reported as a “stunning attack” on the Australian Government, while standing alongside the Australian PM in a highly-orchestrated press conference. She declared his Government were in the wrong for deporting people to New Zealand who have very little connection with our country. She said, “We have a simple request. Send back Kiwis, genuine Kiwis – do not deport your people and your problems.” And she concluded: “We will own our people. We ask that Australia stop exporting theirs.”

Ardern’s extraordinary attack, and the reaction, is well covered by the Herald here: NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lashes Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – the reaction.

For a good report on the press conference, see Henry Cooke’s account: Extraordinary scene as Jacinda Ardern directly confronts Scott Morrison over deportations. He says the confrontation was highly unusual: “Ardern went for the jugular”, Morrison responded strongly, and “They didn’t just make their points and leave it at that – they directly argued with each other”.

Cooke looks at the motivations of both sides: “There was no softening of positions on either side. Both prime ministers were clearly playing to domestic audiences. Morrison got to look tough on criminals while Ardern got to look like a leader unafraid to smash another politician in the face when needed. It was quite a show.”

I’ve written for the Guardian today about the political calculations behind the PM’s performance – see: Taking on Scott Morrison over deportees is a win-win strategy for Jacinda Ardern.

In one respect, the attack is clearly an attempt by the Government to deal with the Opposition’s strong push on law and order issues: “It’s election year and National started the year ramping up talk about criminal gangs in New Zealand. While that’s to be expected every election year, there is evidence that the Australian deportation policy has contributed not just to growth in criminal activity but, alarmingly, to the establishment of a whole new gang culture imported from Australia.”

I explain the PM couldn’t let the National own this issue: “Ardern needed to be seen to be doing something about it, and directly confronting Morrison on his home turf certainly got everyone’s attention. Making this stand on the international stage, in such a commanding fashion, also ensured that opposition leader Simon Bridges was overshadowed and left with few options to attack her on.”

This was a departure for Ardern, who has been relatively quiet in dealing with other world leaders recently over other big issues. For example, last year she met with Donald Trump but did not raise any contentious issues such as climate change – see my Guardian column at the time: Ardern was supposed to be the anti-Trump, but she failed to speak truth to power.

So, Ardern has answered her critics and shown she will stand up to bigger countries when necessary. As I argued in today’s Guardian column, “Her supporters want to see her ruffle feathers internationally on issues of principle and humanitarianism, especially at a time when critics say she has been too pragmatic. Compassion, particularly when it comes to migrants, is one of her defining political characteristics, and in Scott Morrison she has almost the perfect foil. Standing up for the rights of New Zealand citizens abroad is always a winner.”

For more background on the political threat the deportation issue poses for the Government, and why Ardern had to respond so strongly, see Luke Malpass’ PM Jacinda Ardern gets a win in ScoMo’s territory.

He explains that deportations are linked to concern about a rise in gang problems here, made even more galling by the fact that New Zealand doesn’t treat Australians in the same way. Malpass says the deportation move “has sparked a crime wave in New Zealand, boosted gang membership and introduced a whole new Australian gang, the Comancheros, to these shores. It is a fair gripe. Under New Zealand law, with few exceptions, if you’ve been on these shores for 10 years you are considered New Zealand’s problem.”

National has started to make political capital out of this, and have been campaigning hard on the need to reciprocate and deport Australians, and this is worrying Labour: “The fascinating thing domestically is how the gangs and deportations issue is clearly now starting to nip at Labour’s heels. It has not been the party of law and order for many decades”, but with Ardern’s response on Friday, “Law and order just became a bigger part of the election campaign.”

In terms of impressing supporters, the strategy worked. For example, Labour blogger Greg Presland wrote about how Ardern had effectively snookered Bridges and shown her toughness: “National with its latest tough on crime approach will be hating this. Not only has Jacinda again displayed a backbone of steel but she has again shown that she is one of the most remarkable International leaders. The justice of her argument is clear.  And she has trashed traditional notions of how New Zealand Australia relations are conducted when making her point” – see: Do not deport your people and your problems to New Zealand.

Even some of the more sceptical voices on the left watched Ardern’s performance with great appreciation. For example, blogger Martyn Bradbury says “Jacinda stepped up……she is just such a class act isn’t she? She has acted with real leadership… She’s just amazing” – see: Jacinda robs Simon Bridges of his Australian thunder.

Bradbury also sees the electoral strategy as very smart, saying “Last week I thought Bridges had made a break through moment by promising to deport Australian criminals back home to Australia”, but now “she makes Simon’s earlier announcement of reciprocity look blunt and desperate”.

Ardern’s strong attack on the Australian Government over deportations was justified, according to Guardian reporter Ben Doherty, who specialises in immigration issues. He says: “Australia is unambiguously in the wrong here, and it has been consistently for years” – see: Not much love actually: Jacinda Ardern was right to call out Australia’s ‘corrosive’ policies.

Doherty argues: “countries are responsible for the people they create…They are Australian, and they are Australia’s responsibility. Just as parents can’t spurn their children who behave badly, states can’t simply foist people they find difficult onto other countries. The Australian government mounts arguments around national security and safety, but they are spurious, and made for the hackneyed political gain of being seen as tough on crime, and harsh towards ‘others’.”

Although Ardern is being widely celebrated for speaking out so strongly on Australia’s treatment of deportees, there are rumblings about her silence, so far, on controversial statements from one of her own ministers. On Saturday, NZ First’s Shane Jones went on Newshub Nation to say this about immigration: “If you want another million, 2 million, 3 million people, we should debate it and there should be a mandate, rather than opening up the options, unfettered, and everyone comes here from New Delhi. I don’t like that idea at all. I think the number of students that have come from India have ruined many of those institutions” – see Dan Satherley’s Shane Jones says Indian students have ‘ruined’ NZ academic institutions.

David Cormack suggests there is a clear mismatch between Ardern’s treatment of Morrison and her continued leniency towards Jones: “So as our Prime Minister was standing next to a man who has the leadership skills of a potato and telling him to change Australia’s domestic policy on deporting criminals, a man who sits in her Cabinet was back at home belching out vile racism. And will she say anything about it? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s deafening silence over Shane Jones ‘racist’ comments (paywalled).

Finally, comedian Oscar Kightley is impressed with Ardern’s press conference on Friday, saying it “felt like a turning point in terms of our relationship with Australia. Finally, a leader from here was willing to stand up and say what New Zealanders have been thinking since this discriminatory treatment started – see his broader outline of how this latest spat fits into the long-running relationship between the two countries: Jacinda Ardern’s shirtfront on ScoMo a turning point in trans-Tasman relations.