Geoffrey Miller: New Zealand resets relationships with Australia and India

Geoffrey Miller: New Zealand resets relationships with Australia and India

The first clues to New Zealand’s foreign policy after Jacinda Ardern are beginning to emerge.

Chris Hipkins, the new Prime Minister, decided to retain Nanaia Mahuta as his foreign minister – and both Hipkins and Mahuta took to the skies last week.

While Hipkins headed to Australia – the customary first destination for an incoming New Zealand Prime Minister – Mahuta flew to India on a surprise trip announced just a day prior to her departure.

In very different contexts, the pair managed to smooth over differences and pave the way for deeper partnerships – which may well involve greater military cooperation.

Mahuta is likely to play a bigger role in New Zealand’s foreign policy in the months to come, not least because Hipkins’ pledge to focus on ‘bread and butter’ economic issues is likely to keep him at home more often, especially as the October 14 election date draws closer.

The dynamic between Hipkins and Mahuta will be fascinating to watch.

Hipkins demoted Mahuta in his Cabinet rankings – from 8th to 16th – and reassigned her other ministerial portfolio of Local Government, under which Mahuta had been determined to roll out the controversial ‘Three Waters’ infrastructure reforms.

In announcing his Cabinet reshuffle, Hipkins made clear that he expected Mahuta to be ‘out and about travelling more’.

This was a reference to Mahuta’s relatively light travel schedule since becoming foreign minister in November 2020. Mahuta’s last major trip before India was to Papua New Guinea in early September 2022.

While the foreign minister paid tribute to outgoing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on social media, she made no similar move to congratulate Chris Hipkins on his new role.

There was another curiosity as well.

In Waitangi with the Prime Minister and her Labour Party colleagues for events to commemorate New Zealand’s national day on February 6th, the foreign minister suddenly cancelled a scheduled address to foreign diplomats without explanation.

She then suddenly announced a trip to India and left New Zealand on Waitangi Day itself.

The following day, February 7, Chris Hipkins flew to Canberra for a more predictable, one-day trip to meet his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese.

The two leaders were at pains to project warmth and friendship – despite being at odds over whether they had previously met (Albanese recalled a past encounter in Wellington, but Hipkins had already told media that he had never met Albanese).

In the Australian capital, Hipkins was keen to stress continuity – ‘our foreign policy position hasn’t changed just because there’s a change of prime minister’ – while Albanese sought to stress closeness by saying ‘we are family’.

Albanese’s repeated use of the word ‘family’ to describe the relationship with New Zealand echoed the superficially warm, yet intentionally exclusionary ‘Pacific family’ phrasing that was frequently deployed by Australia to try and ward off China’s moves in the region last year.

Still, an underlying tension had been neutralised in advance of Hipkins’ visit to Canberra, after the Australian government pledged to apply more discretion when deciding whether to deport ‘501s’, or New Zealand citizens who had served prison sentences of 12 months or more in Australia.

The issue had been a source of tension in the bilateral relationship, with Ardern calling it ‘corrosive’ to the relationship in 2019 and publicly telling Australia’s then Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2020 ‘do not deport your people and your problems’ – a reference to the fact that many deportees had grown up in Australia.

The recent shift by Albanese’s government is largely a case of style over substance – Australia has not changed Section 501 of its Migration Act and has made no specific commitments on the numbers of deportees.

But it was a shift in tone and that was all that was needed to take the 501 issue off the agenda.

As geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific builds, Australia has bigger fish to fry.

Canberra would like to see Wellington move more closely into its orbit when it comes to countering Beijing.

When asked about the potential for New Zealand to become involved in the new Aukus security pact, Chris Hipkins deployed the usual red herring of pointing to New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy – which would seemingly rule out a partnership built on nuclear-powered submarines.

But the architects of Aukus have long suggested the partnership could be expanded into other areas, and Anthony Albanese reinforced this notion in his press conference with Chris Hipkins.

Albanese said Aukus was ‘about a whole range of issues, including the interoperability of our forces and also co-operation on technology and other issues’.

High-ranking officials, such as Jacinda Ardern’s defence minister and New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Australia, have previously signalled an interest in becoming involved in non-nuclear submarine components of Aukus.

With the 501 issue dealt with and an easier pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders living in Australia to be announced by April, Australia might be tempted to take advantage of the goodwill generated – and the fresh leadership in Wellington – to push for New Zealand’s involvement in a more peripheral component of Aukus.

Over 10,000 km away from Canberra, in New Delhi, New Zealand’s foreign minister faced a challenge that was both different and similar to the one faced by Chris Hipkins.

Nanaia Mahuta’s visit to India was a reciprocal call after an unusually long, five-day visit to New Zealand in October by India’s external affairs minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

During his visit, Jaishankar had publicly signalled his displeasure with New Zealand over its treatment of Indian visa-holders during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a sense, there were parallels with New Zealand’s resentment over the ‘501’ deportees from Australia.

It had nothing to do with the bigger geopolitical picture, but there was a sense of grievance.

New Zealand had clearly heard Jaishankar’s criticism and responded by announcing 1,800 new ‘post-study’ work visas in December. While this was not a full solution, the news was welcomed by Indian nationals who had returned home during the pandemic and subsequently found themselves locked out of New Zealand.

With the issue now at least partially dealt with, there was no repeat of the public rebuke issued by Jaishankar on his visit to Auckland and Wellington in 2022.

Instead, the Indian external affairs ministry’s account of Jaishankar’s meeting with Mahuta noted discussions of bilateral cooperation on ‘economic, political, defence, education, and science & technology’ issues.

The mention of ‘defence’ is arguably the most significant – and potentially a sign of things to come.

In an interview with India’s Hindustan Times, Mahuta described India as a ‘counterbalance to the superpower contest’ and pointed to ‘many benefits beyond trade’, while she told the ABP Live outlet ‘we need to figure out who we can trust, who we can rely on in this time of need and India is such a significant contributor to ensuring greater peace and stability in the region’.

Military ties have played a key role in Australia’s deepening of its own bilateral relationship with India.

Australia signed defence cooperation agreements with India in 2006, 2009 and 2014, which paved the way for the wider ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ signed in 2020.

Since 2015, Australia has conducted regular bilateral naval exercises with India called AUSINDEX. It followed this up last year with the first joint land-based activity, Austra-Hind, and by involving India in the multilateral Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercises.

In parallel, Australia has stepped up its commitment to the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ (or Quad) grouping that also includes India, Japan and the United States.

The increased military engagement probably helped to facilitate the signing of Australia’s limited free trade agreement with India that came into force in December 2022.

New Zealand is envious of Australia’s trade deal with India, which according to some estimates is now the world’s most populous country.

Around the world, trade and security are only likely to become more interlinked as geopolitical tensions build.

Australia and India would probably both like to expand their military ties with New Zealand.

However, it needs to be remembered that Australia and India are forging stronger bilateral relations in large part because of their common desire to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.

And Chris Hipkins last week described Beijing as ‘an incredibly important partner for New Zealand – a very important trading partner and a partner in other areas as well’.

With a third of New Zealand’s exports going to China every year, Hipkins will have his country’s beef and butter issues on his mind.

New Zealand may have a new Prime Minister.

But the challenges remain much the same.

Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian. He is currently working on a PhD on New Zealand’s relations with the Gulf states.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  

Items of interest and importance today

PARLIAMENT, DEMOCRACY
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Why ‘have your say’ exercises are meaningless
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Chris Hipkins’ challenges and the case for a snap election
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Labour leads, Māori Party the kingmaker in latest poll
Gareth Hughes (Stuff): Time for the Greens to ditch a key election strategy
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Chris Hipkins puts stamp on Government – but is it really a policy purge?
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): After Chris Hipkins’ policy bonfire, voters need to hear plans (paywalled)
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): After the bonfire, Chris Hipkins must face the real heat(paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Luxon yet to catch a break after Hipkins’ rise
Claire Trevett (Herald): The clever politics in PM Chris Hipkins’ Loaves and Butter announcement – how will Chris Luxon counter? (paywalled)
Herald: Christopher Luxon v Chris Hipkins: Which Chris won the week? (paywalled)
Herald Editorial: Chippy clears out his toolbelt (paywalled)
Peter Wilson (RNZ): Has Chris Hipkins done enough?
Claire Trevett (Herald): Grant Robertson – the full story on why he did not want to be Prime Minister (paywalled)
Claire Trevett (Herald): PM Chris Hipkins faces cuisine challenges, the likely successor to Jacinda Ardern in Mt Albert turns 40 (paywalled)
Sophie Neville (Woman’s Day): Carmel Sepuloni: ‘I don’t want to be the sookie bubba deputy PM’
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Chris Hipkins braves bad weather to attend Asia-Pacific business conference (paywalled)
Marc Wilson (Herald): Red flag: Does hair colour matter when it comes to leadership?(paywalled)

HATE SPEECH LAWS
Chris Trotter (Interest): Can words hurt us?
Grant Duncan: Is free speech under threat?
Alan Ringwood (Herald): Religious beliefs must be open to scrutiny and, sometimes, to ridicule (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): How Wellington woke activists ensured hate speech laws were kicked off political agenda

PARLIAMENT PROTEST AND CONSPIRACIES
1News: Q+A: Where are the Parliament protesters one year on?
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): One year on, a small group gathers to remember the Parliament occupation
RNZ: Parliament protest: Plan to commemorate occupation one year on
Nevil Gibson (NBR): The Covid conspiracies that fuel extremism

CO-GOVERNANCE, TREATY, PARTNERSHIP
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Co-governance debate heats up at Rātana, Waitangi
Thomas Cranmer: Tūhoe: co-governance is not our word
Tina Ngata (E-Tangata): Performative gestures and permissiveness are derailing Tiriti justice
Will Trafford (Whakaata Māori): ‘Racist’ rally going ahead, after organiser’s legal threats
Aroha Gilling (E-Tangata): Partnership means pulling up your socks

COST OF LIVING, EMPLOYMENT
Janet Wilson (Stuff): Food insecurity growing in two-parent working families
Gianina Schwanecke (Stuff): Cost of living crisis ‘traumatic’ for some students in Aotearoa, principal says
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Government considered energy payment and encouraging cycling instead of fuel tax cut
Andrew Gunn (Stuff): How is anyone supposed to live on less than $22.70 an hour?
RNZ: Retailers claim minimum wage increases make it harder to maintain relativities for staff
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): National’s Erica Stanford slams Government for not making ‘tough political decisions’ on minimum wage
Rebecca Stevenson (BusinessDesk): Business wants minimum wage explanation(paywalled)
Rob Stock (Stuff): Cost of house insurance has increased 17% in one year, says Quashed

ECONOMY, BUSINESS
David Hargreaves (Interest): What happens when the Official Cash Rate gets to the ‘top’?
RNZ: Manufacturing sector expands in January after three months of contraction – index
RNZ: Retail sales using cards up 2.6% as appetite for big ticket buys remains

AUCKLAND, FLOODING, CLIMATE CHANGE
Alison Mau (Stuff): Don’t let a good thing die – why the Citizens Advice Bureau must be saved
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Why is a secular Government agency talking to me about a weather God?
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): After the storm, then what?
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Budget cuts ‘not-fit-for-purpose’ in climate crisis
Asaad Shamseldin (Newsroom): Stormwater thinking outside the box
Lana Hart (Stuff): Will this summer of slosh get us moving on climate change?
Brent Edwards (NBR): Minister James Shaw: Climate adaption’s funding challenge(paywalled)

LOCAL GOVERNMENT, THREE WATERS
Lauren Crimp (RNZ): ‘We wear full accountability’ – Council knew about falling street lamps
Lauren Crimp (RNZ): Faulty street lamps fall to the ground: ‘You’d be killed stone dead’
Tom Hunt (Stuff): It’s raining lamps: 15kg street lights fall in Wellington with deadly force
Julia Talbot-Jones and Thomas Benison (The Conversation): It’s near impossible to get good data on water use in New Zealand. This raises questions about public accountability
George Thomson (Chris Lynch Media): Council urges Government to re-think approach to Three Waters Reform
Kiri Gillespie (Rotorua Daily Post): Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell pushes back on submissions saga amid a legal threat
Maia Hart (Local Democracy Reporting): Online voting, civics education key to turnout turnaround
Lois Williams (Newsroom): West Coast councils baulk at fluoride cost
Jake Kenny (Stuff): Cake decorator who helped defraud Westland taxpayers of $459,000 could be deported
Emily Moorhouse (Open Justice Reporting): Auckland cake decorator sentenced for role in in corrupt council contract
RNZ: Feedback sought over wildlife refuge and wetland in Christchurch’s red zone

HOUSING
MIriam Bell (Stuff): New website revealing how many properties landlords own is under investigation
Geraden Cann (Stuff): New website allows renters to find out how many properties their landlord owns
Kate Newton (Stuff): For sale: new, warm and dry homes. The catch? They’re in a flood plain, and the flood is coming sooner than you think
Olivia Wannan (Stuff): A law could allow flood-hit homeowners to seek safer ground, if the Government would fund it
Miriam Bell (Stuff): Property investors will not be making a comeback anytime soon

HEALTH
RNZ: Epidemiologist Michael Baker to head new public health communication project
Maryanna Garcia (Bay of Plenty Times): Covid-19 coronavirus: General Practice funding cut as majority of cases treated as mild infection
RNZ: The Detail: Youth vaping: New regulations too little too late?
Brianna Mcilraith (Stuff): Supermarket selling beer cheaper than water are being investigated by police
RNZ: Suicide prevention charity sees 62 percent increase in peer support demand

MEDIA, BROADCASTING
Damien Grant (Stuff): Mister Organ: A voyeuristic tour of damaged human detritus for our amusement
Herald: ‘Iconic show’: Ten 7 Aotearoa, formerly Police Ten 7, is coming to an end after two decades
RNZ: TVNZ to cancel controversial crime show Ten 7