Editorial: Australia shouldn’t make it all about us

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop set her sights on New Zealand’s Labour Party (Photo: Alex Ellinghausen)

18 August 2017

Philip Matthews – Senior Writer, The Press

Australian newspapers had a lot of fun with the shocking revelation that their deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, is actually a Kiwi. They hilariously rebranded Joyce as “Barnaby Choice” or even “Baa-naby”. We fell asleep counting sheep jokes. If you ever wondered whether Australian stereotypes of New Zealanders had moved on from the 1970s, here was an opportunity to discover that they have not.

But more seriously, the citizenship story was Australian politics at its ugliest with New Zealand dragged in as collateral damage or to be a convenient scapegoat.

It happened because an interpretation of the Australian constitution demands that a person must be solely a citizen of Australia before being elected to parliament. If this is so, Joyce was not alone in failing to read the fine print and the wider citizenship shambles has been an absurd, escalating drama. As many as nine Australian MPs might need to have their electoral results re-examined due to gaps in the paperwork.

But the story about Joyce is the incident that ricocheted off New Zealand. Joyce was born in New South Wales but his father, James Joyce – probably no relation to the famous writer who had his own links with New Zealand – came from Otago. Of course New Zealanders will appreciate the supreme irony of an increasingly xenophobic, Kiwi-bashing Australian political class being bitten by its deep historical links with us.

Investigative reporters from Fairfax Australia turned up Joyce’s links to New Zealand but communication and information-swapping also took place between a New Zealand-born Australian Labor staffer and Rimutaka MP Chris Hipkins​.

Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne is adamant that the reporters made the discovery, but Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, was casting about for someone to blame and that was us. It matters because her government has a wafer-thin majority of just one and if Joyce is taken out, an early election could follow.

Some local commentators also attacked Hipkins and her leader, Jacinda Ardern, for meddling in another country’s politics. Bishop went further and said she would have trouble trusting a future Labour government – a statement that sounds much more like overt meddling.

So it is instructive to look across the Tasman at some homegrown coverage. At the Sydney Morning Herald, whose reporters broke the Joyce story to start with, national affairs editor Mark Kenny called Bishop’s actions “a farrago of distraction” and “a clumsy smokescreen”.

Writing at the Crikey news website, political journalist Bernard Keane used words like “astonishing” and “extraordinary” to describe Bishop’s behaviour in a column about a “hysterical government lashing out at reality”. Another headline a day later by the same writer said a “punch-drunk government” was “flailing at foes, real and imagined”.

In the wake of these astonishing and extraordinary attacks, Ardern stood her ground with a demeanour that one might call Helen Clark-like. Hipkins was censured but Ardern was not going to take any rubbish from across the ditch either. By contrast, Prime Minister Bill English flailed and waffled when he should have resisted supporting this nasty Australian exercise in political point-scoring.

[Read the Stuff Editorial].

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