Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison; Jenny Morrison; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Clark Gayford, in a gondola on their way to Queenstown's Skyline last night.

Australia is supporting the call for an investigation into whether Covid escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan.

So far, both the New Zealand Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have said nothing.

But how long they can maintain that silence is debatable.

For a start,  the matter is likely to be on the agenda for talks in Queenstown today between the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers and their officials.

It could well be a defining moment for New Zealand, an indication of whether it is ready to join with the rest of the west in recognising, as one American official last week put it, the era of engagement with China is over.

And at the same time, it will be a real test of the trans-Tasman relationship.

That relationship was brought into sharp focus yesterday when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison flew into a rain-swept Queenstown and last night got a formal welcome from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But though the Skyline room at the top of the Queenstown gondola ride contained some of the heavy hitters from the Beehive and from the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum,  both leaders avoided the politics and instead lauded the “family” ties between the two countries.

The mood was set by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her welcome to the person she called Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then said she would revert to “our normal names, which we use in our company all of the time; Scott and Jenny.”

Yet, she also gently hinted that sometimes we would differ.


“As much as two sovereign nations, we won’t’ see every issue in the same way — not just on the cricket pitch,” she said.

As the audience laughed, she added:” We will never move on.”

“Australia, you are our family.

“And so I can’t imagine a more important time for us to just continue to build and strengthen those ties.”

Morrison was after reminding the audience that his grandfather had been born in Ashburton, drew inspiration n from the ANZAC legend as he argued that the response from Australia and New Zealand to the Covid pandemic had been exceptional.

“It’s an Anzac path that we’ve charted through this pandemic,” he said.

“We have gone our own way now in this part of the world, and we’ve demonstrated, I think, that we are peoples of great resilience, which has been our form over a very long period of time.

And we’ve been able to both save lives and save livelihoods.

“We find ourselves in a situation with the relative strength of our economies to the rest of the world and our health strength when it comes to Covid, which stands out amongst the nations.

“And I know when Jacinda and I speak to foreign leaders, they constantly remark about how Australia and New Zealand have been able to chart their way through.”

And so “Scott and Kenny” and “Jacinda and Clark” then went off for dinner together at Eichardts in Queenstown.

But the mutual backslapping and pleasantries are in themselves revealing.

As officials remarked in a pre-trip briefing for media, Australia and New Zealand are the most interconnected countries in the world.

Morrison exemplifies this; not only was his grandfather born in New Zealand, but he himself worked in Wellington as the Director of the Office of Tourism and Sport between 1998 and 2000. His predecessor as Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, had spent his school holidays in Hamilton, where his mother lived. And his predecessor, Tony Abbott, was married to a New Zealander.

It is that underlying familiarity that defines the relationship rather than geography,  with  Australia having four neighbours closer than New Zealand;  Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, East Timor, The Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Thus suggestions that the two countries are no longer “friends” are ridiculous.

But in the background behind the talks between the two leaders and their officials, today will be questions about New Zealand’s relationship with China.

These are now likely to centre on the United States call for an investigation into whether Covid leaked from a Wuhan laboratory.

Last Wednesday, US President Joe Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19, including the theory that it came from a laboratory in China.

He said the US intelligence community was split on whether it came from a lab accident or emerged from human contact with an infected animal.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she welcomed Mr Biden’s announcement and noted the “contested” views among the US agencies, one of which believed the lab leak was the most plausible source.

“We’ve been consistent about the need to identify the origins to ensure a pandemic doesn’t happen again and to ensure we are all better prepared,” Senator Payne told the ABC.

“We will continue to work with our international partners, including the United States, with whom we share concerns on this.”

Neither Ardern nor Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have so far made any comment on Biden’s call.

POLITIK understands the United States is soliciting support for its position. It would be usual for New Zealand to be one of the countries approached for that.

China has already made it clear it would oppose any investigation.

“Origin-tracing is a serious scientific issue, and yet the US intends to let its intelligence service play a leading role in conducting the research,” its Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Friday.

“This only shows that facts and truth is the last thing the US side cares about.

“It has zero interest in scientific research but is only seeking political manipulation for the purpose of scapegoating.”

The last place New Zealand will want to be is anywhere near this argument. The prospect of disruption to New Zealand exports to China at this stage of the Covid economic recovery could be potentially disastrous.