Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is demonstrating that her campaign to admit Manus Islands refugees into New Zealand is part of a new approach to foreign affairs.
She says she intends restoring a role in foreign affairs that New Zealand has had in the past of being international advocates on issues “that we feel strongly about.”
But the risks in doing that are clearly evident in the Manus Island situation.
Whilst, her initial proposition to Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was carefully phrased and received seemingly courteously by Turnbull, things have moved on.
Ardern has persisted with her offer to take 150 refugees and upped the rhetoric by saying that she had “grave concerns” about the refugees on Manus Island.
She has support from within Australia from (amidst others) Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and from the Australian Pacific Refugee Rights Network.
(The Network has previously been invited to brief Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Commtitee on refugee policy.)
And yesterday she got a heavyweight boost from former Prime Minister, Helen Clark who tweeted: that a New York Times article exposing conditions on Manus would “give background to why both NZ National- & Labour-led governments offered to help resettlement.
“Many of those onManus are recognised as refugees by UN.
“ That gives them rights – among other things to protection.
“Time for some humanity:”
But the Australian Government faces domestic political pressures.
With two by-elections pending because of the citizenship crisis, the Turnbull Government is technically a minority Government reliant on the support of five cross benchers to govern.
And it is a Government facing a political crisis.
A Newspoll last weekend showed that Labor would sweep into power with a 33 seat majority if an election were held now.
Thus any challenges to the Government from Ardern, particularly challenges on such a fundamental policy as “stopping the boats”, are unlikely to be received well.
One Australian Government source told POLITIK that they were sick of being lectured about human rights “by the leader of a country that takes 750 refugees a year.”
(Australia takes 20,000 refugees a year.)
However challenged yesterday on TVOne’s “Q+A” about whether she was prepared to “upset Australia, to potentially put them into a difficult position” Ardern said: “That’s going to occur from time to time. I think we have to constantly be prepared that, yes, sometimes when we take a view, it may not always be looked upon or welcomed, necessarily, by those that we’re interacting with.
“But again, we’ve got to just simply do what we believe to be right.
“On Manus, I saw an opportunity for us, actually, to play a role to assist Australia, but also to play a role in fulfilling our international obligations when it comes to refugees.
“We’ve done that.
“Yes, it has received pushback, but I still believe we’ve done the right thing.”
That is not the view of some Australian editorial writers.
“The Australian” last Tuesday said: “New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was perfectly entitled to revive an old offer to take 150 asylum-seekers from offshore detention centres, including Manus Island.
“But for the sake of good relations, she should have accepted a polite refusal from the Turnbull government.
“Instead, she has blasted Australia’s handling of the Manus Island standoff as unacceptable.”
Even within Labour, there are attempts to liken her attitude on Manus to that of Helen Clark when she agreed in 2001 to take refugees off the beleaguered cargo ship, the Tampa, which had rescued a boat load of refugees being brought to Australia by people smugglers.
Then-Australian Prime Minister eagerly accepted Clark’s offer to take the refugees.
He later wrote: here was an example of the pragmatism of our relationship.
“On one interpretation Helen Clark would have been a fierce critic of what the Australian Government had done.
“She was an internationalist, and there were no shortage of people denouncing my Government’s actions as being contrary to the spirit of what the UN stood for on refugees.
“On the other hand, she saw the value of assisting her ANZAC partner.
“It was a gesture form her I would not forget.”
But Ardern seems to be striking a different note with her approach to foreign affairs.
“I’ve certainly given thought to what responsibility we have as members of an international community, where we use our voice and why, and where we use it in a way that’s constructive,” she told “Q+A”.
“We’ve got to keep in mind that often we’re commenting on issues that we may, not ourselves be personally experiencing, conflicts that are complex, so making sure that we have some understanding and really take a partnership role but also be a strong voice.
She said that because of her age she did take a different perspective.
“But it’s one as a member of an international community.
“Regardless of my age or generation, I hope to speak on behalf of New Zealand and its view as an international player.”
Australian observers say that the danger of New Zealand getting involved in what is essentially Australian immigration policy is that it is an area which is sensitive for New Zealand given the large number of New Zealanders in Australia.
The Prime Minister will have taken that into account.
But the political imperative that may be driving her is a need to keep faith with the left of her party, its base, as her Government looks set to sign the Comprehensive Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership.
Her signal to the party that she will continue to speak out will undoubtedly win her applause in Labour circles even if it doesn’t in some foreign ministries.