The change in tone at Ardern and Albanese’s meeting could not have been more stark

Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison, it seems, were never quite in sync.

Before New Zealand’s leader trumpeted a “reset” of the relationship with Australia on Friday, she exchanged gifts with the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who was known at one stage or another as “DJ Albo”.

“I know that he enjoys music and so I shared with him a few [records] from the Flying Nun label in New Zealand, Aldous Harding, The Clean,” Ardern said in a cheerful appearance on Australian breakfast television on Friday. “And in exchange, I got Powderfinger, Spiderbait and Midnight Oil.”

Putting aside some sledging from across the ditch about Albanese’s choices, Ardern was asked why this exchange of records could never have happened when Morrison was in office. Ardern’s very diplomatic formulation was: “We did talk about music on occasion but I’m not sure that I would’ve exactly picked necessarily the right music if I think I was given that task, so …”

She let the words linger.

The last time Ardern was in Australia was 28 February 2020, on the same day the first Covid-19 case in New Zealand was announced. It was a visit notable for some particularly forthright exchanges with Morrison. A lot has changed between then and now.

It was a four-flag press conference at the commonwealth parliamentary offices in Sydney on Friday: two Australian, two New Zealand. The two leaders were positively beaming, and seemed to genuinely respect each other, as they vowed to take the trans-Tasman economic relationship “to a new level”.

Ardern smiled as Albanese recounted how the New Zealand PM had snuck in the very first congratulatory phone call when the Labor leader was on his way to the election night party to give his victory speech on that Saturday in May. Ardern already had Albanese’s number as they had spoken when he was opposition leader. Albanese’s message, in referencing the call, was: we’re good friends, we’ve hit the ground running, the only way is up.

When Albanese did what Morrison was always reluctant to do – explicitly and unequivocally acknowledge climate change as a national security challenge – Ardern nodded in agreement. When Albanese observed that it was as if Australia was now out of the “naughty corner” on climate policy, Ardern chuckled.

There were none of the fireworks from some previous leaders’ meetings, which mainly arose from differences over Australia’s practice of deporting New Zealand nationals on character grounds, including those who had moved to Australia as children and had no real connections in their country of citizenship.

In 2019, Ardern said bluntly after talks with Morrison in New Zealand that the issue had “become corrosive” in the trans-Tasman relationship. “Visas are not citizenship,” Morrison had replied. After the meeting in Sydney on the brink of the pandemic in 2020, Ardern accused Morrison of “deporting your people and your problems”.

The change in tone on Friday could not be more stark. Ardern was “heartened” by Albanese’s acknowledgment of her strongly held view about the problems associated with returning people who had little or no connection to New Zealand. She said she detected in Albanese “a real awareness of some of the issues that we’ve long raised”.

Albanese pledged to consider changes to the way the policy was implemented – friends: we hear you and will deal with this issue maturely – and deployed what one Twitter user described as “empathy gold”.

“And what’s clear is that, if people look at some of the cases [of visa cancellations] … it’s not surprising that the prime minister would make the strong representations that she had, because I would be, if I was in the same position,” Albanese said.

Albanese wouldn’t say publicly exactly what mechanism he would use. Labor sources had previously suggested the ministerial direction could be tweaked to ensure decisions better take into account the length of time a person has been in Australia and the historic special immigration status of New Zealand citizens. That seems to overlap neatly with Ardern’s request for Albanese to “take greater account of potential deportees’ links to New Zealand” and look at its model of not deporting individuals who had lived in the country for 10 years or more.

In any case, both leaders were keen to emphasise this was only one issue in a large number of topics they discussed, and that the two countries would be stronger together at a time with many regional and global challenges.

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Albanese said the two countries were in “lockstep” about how to confront the challenges in the Pacific – including increasing strategic competition – with China seeking new security and economic deals in the region.

Ardern went as far as saying the new Australian government offered the prospect of a “reset”.

Officials from both governments had laid down some restrictions at the beginning of the joint press conference: three questions from Australian journalists, three from New Zealand journalists. There was minor confusion at the end about the counting, with Ardern thinking it was possible there was one last New Zealander on the list. But Albanese was confident the quota had been filled.

“Forgive me – we’re done,” Ardern said, as both leaders started to make their way towards the door.

“I’ve just been through an election, so I can count,” Albanese assured Ardern.

“77’s the key,” he joked, referring to the number of seats Labor will hold in the lower house. And then they were off.


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