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  • John McDonnell

PM returns from calm of New Zealand to hurly-burly of Victorian lockdown

Scott Morrison had good reason to be pleased with his whistle-stop to Queenstown in New Zealand. Apart from anything else he scored an All Black’s jersey from NZ prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. He can put it on and pretend he’s a winner whenever he takes the field.

The meeting was unusual because it took place in the pandemic travel bubble and the fact that the leaders could meet face to face added to the warmth of the occasion. It was fortunate that the Victorian lockdown did not prevent the meeting from happening because the exchange between the two leaders, who are ultimately pragmatists, focused on the geographical and political closeness of the two countries.

For Scott Morrison, this was the first of a series of meetings scheduled around parliamentary sittings in Australia. When this parliamentary week finishes, he will fly out to London for the G7 talks and later in the year he will probably attend the global climate conference in Glasgow. These will be far more intense meetings.

The key issue in the talks was relations with China. Australia went into the trans-Tasman bilateral with a suspicion that New Zealand was being conciliatory towards China in order to profit from Australia’s exclusion from the Chinese market for products like wine. Indeed, New Zealand has just signed an enhanced free trade agreement with China and the New Zealand trade minister, Damien O’Connor, had sermonised that Australia would do better on the trade front if it was more respectful towards China.

This has led Chinese state media to proclaim that there was a split between Australia and New Zealand over how to deal with China. Ms Ardern went out of her way to mollify Australia on this issue, indicating in a clear statement of support that New Zealand would back Australia’s case on barley tariffs before the World Trade Organisation.

Paragraph 37 of the joint communique says:

The Prime Ministers affirmed their strong support for open rules-based trade that is based on market principles. They expressed concern over harmful economic coercion and agreed to work with partners to tackle security and economic challenges.

After his pleasant sojourn in New Zealand, the prime minister returned to Canberra on Tuesday with the opposition on a roll. It was getting great media mileage out of blaming the Victorian lockdown on the failure of the federal government’s vaccine program and the leak of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine. There was added piquancy in the fact that three people in the aged care environment had tested positive for the virus.

Another failure was attributed to the Commonwealth because there were still unvaccinated residents and staff in aged care homes in Victoria. The fact that the vast majority of these had chosen not to be vaccinated went unnoticed in the heat of the debate.

In parliament on Tuesday, Scott Morrison made heavy weather of questions put by Victorian members attending by zoom or wearing masks in the chamber. He did point out that 2 million people had been vaccinated in May and Greg Hunt told the house that all nursing home residents in Australia that wanted to be, would be vaccinated by Thursday.

Which is when the lockdown will end, we hope.


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