Jane Clifton: ‘Koala diplomacy’ and the escalating trans-Tasman biffo


Koala diplomacy breaks out following the trans-Tasman bilateral talks in Queenstown.

Parents are familiar with a concept known as “street angels and house devils”, and it’s as incurable in politicians as it is in little kids.

They play merry hell at home, but once they leave the domestic setting, their manners miraculously become impeccable.

That’s how come, after months of escalating trans-Tasman biffo, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived in Queenstown last weekend with the winning suggestion of having a yarn about “these wee devils between us”.

It added to the charm that, just days earlier, a precious litter was born in an endangered Tasmanian devil colony. Australia loves these wee devils, but, like the feisty marsupials, the ones between our two countries can pack a nasty bite, with long-range festering power.

Suddenly, though, it was all koala diplomacy. The Queenstown bilateral meeting concluded with both PMs professing solidarity. They had agreed to differ on the odd thing, such as the “501” deportees. But there was, Morrison said, no material difference in the two countries’ approach to China. Then came the holy covenant of swapping rugby jerseys. Greater love hath no Antipodean bilateral.

To the foreign media, which has all but reported recent trans-Tasman relations as “Fight! Fight! Fight!”, this was miserably disappointing.

China obligingly bolstered the diplomatic nudge-wink by issuing a blistering denouncement of how beastly both countries were being to it. (It’s big enough to be a devil at home and abroad.)

So, instead of being divided over China, as the two countries reportedly were until the weekend, they were now united against it. Or so they said.

It all depends whether they’re playing by house rules or street rules.

Bilaterals are choreo­graphed charades, pre-sanitised against spontaneity. The message was always going to be a granite reassurance that for all the trans-Tasman bickering – and no one seriously pretends that isn’t heartfelt – there is still no serious rift between the two countries on trade or human rights.

The solidarity display was vital to see off attempts, not just by China for geopolitical reasons but also by trade rivals for economic reasons, to play one of us off against the other. Two other strategies are afoot to discourage this. New Zealand is formally supporting Australia’s World Trade Organisation action against China’s barley tariffs. And once Australia secures its almost-complete free-trade deal with Britain, our follow-up will be, “We’ll have what they’re having.”

Beyond all that, both countries are happy with the wee devils between them. Australia will continue to bait China on all fronts through all forums and snarl about New Zealand being obsequious; New Zealand will be more targeted and judicious and sigh over Australia’s bellicose posturing.

Whether koala diplomacy will extend to an invite for ScoMo to attend a certain wedding may be the next acid test. Because, as we’ve just seen from British politics, confetti can expunge the worst dirt one’s enemies can chuck.

Twitter threats

Former Downing Street adviser and Brexit mastermind Dominic Cummings has recklessly disregarded the old saying: “Never wash dirty laundry in public and never use the media as detergent.”

He has lately superseded even Prince Harry in throwing tin-eared public tantrums, which serve only to reinforce a growing irrelevance.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s long-time wingman resigned after refusing to accept that, as an unelected official, it was not his job to run the country. Brilliant but tyrannical, Cummings regards democracy as a major pain and never hid his disdain for both the bureaucracy and MPs – save for those willing to do what he told them. This list of exceptions diminished fatally when joined by Johnson, who is reported as having asked Cummings to leave. Cummings has dribbled Twitter threats to expose Johnson’s Government ever since. Last month, he gave a second marathon of bulging-eyed testimony to Parliament, which can be summarised as: I didn’t get my own way and it’s not fair!

Is there anything more guaranteed to disappoint than the headline, “REVEALED!”? Cummings said Johnson had dithered over Covid lockdown and got stuff wrong. And, yes, he did, but for the understandable reasons that the science advice varied and he doubted a lockdown could be enforced. He may have bumbled his way through the legal, political and logistical options, but so did every other government to some degree. Every country got things wrong, U-turning and tweaking as the crisis’ parameters became clearer.

Johnson’s critics did their best with Cummings’ artillery, which, to be fair, contained some eye-watering quotes, but his Maginot Line was being unable to resist indulging a grudge against Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds. He repeatedly referred to her as “the Prime Minister’s girlfriend” – dog-whistle misogyny, although arguably better than his private nickname for her, Princess Nut Nut.

Secret wedding

Cummings sought to fuel indignation that Johnson had been influenced by “a girlfriend’s” environmental and social-justice focus, and by her own extensive and successful experience as a political adviser with useful networks. Alas, he awoke last Sunday to find the mere girlfriend had married the PM in a secret little wedding, which quickly became a public-relations triumph, thanks to such flourishes as her hiring her couture dress for less than 50 quid. That’ll be Mrs Nut Nut to you, Dom.

There’s another useful saying: living well is the best revenge.

As well as his blatant misogyny misfire, Cummings horribly misjudged the public appetite for raking up the past. Britons are no longer focused on the decision-making chaos of last year, any more than New Zealanders are. They’re interested in vaccine progress – which in Britain has been stellar – and how quickly and safely the borders can be reopened.

Politically, Johnson’s Conservatives are also prioritising growing themselves a new centre vote, for which Mrs Johnson’s newer-generation green ideas are more useful than Cummings’ old Brexit flourishes. How could this strategic whiz kid forget that likeability is trumps in politics? A ranting, embittered spin doctor was never going to beat an, admittedly, mendacious but charming rogue such as Johnson, let alone his high-minded, animal-loving partner.

Also, most people melt before a nice wedding photo. “When you’re in a hole …” is surely the moral here, but Pass the Spade is a deathless political addiction. Former NZ Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, for instance, is now appealing a defamation judgment against him from the events of three elections ago. Will politicos ever learn the significance of the “ex” in excavation?

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