Politics / Comment & Analysis

Week in Politics: Ministers defend slow progress on trans-Tasman bubble

18:18 pm on 19 March 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - A trans-Tasman travel bubble could be announced within days, Australia's deportation of a 15-year-old boy raises questions and concerns, the Greens want to slip a bill into Parliament that would decriminalise cannabis, and the first opinion poll of the year is released.

Two senior Cabinet ministers have pointed out this week that Australians aren't allowed to leave their country unless they've obtained an exit visa, Peter Wilson writes. Photo: AFP

There was a surge of activity around a trans-Tasman travel bubble this week with an announcement expected in days.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would only say it would be "soon", but it can't be soon enough for the tourist industry.

With New Zealand the only option, Australians starved of overseas travel could be arriving in their thousands within weeks.

According to Stuff, before the pandemic 1.5 million Australians visited New Zealand each year, making up 40 percent of short-term visitors, while there were 1.4 million New Zealand visitors to Australia.

There's clearly some work to be done before a fully operational two-way bubble becomes a reality.

The two governments have been talking about it for months and it has not been easy going. It has been reported that an agreement was close in February but Australia withdrew from it.

It's been a murky business and this is how Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson explained it, speaking on First Up: "There was plenty of discussion between New Zealand and Australia around how we could get a combined, joint, shared set of protocols and frameworks for quarantine-free travel," he said.

"In the end, Australia went in a different direction and said 'right, we think we can do it this way'. We've then taken that on board and said okay, we're now working on what Minister [Chris] Hipkins calls a unilateral approach."

The plan is for the bubble to be in place by the end of April, RNZ reports.

"Ministers are actively working on the proposal and the next step would be for it to go to a full Cabinet, potentially this coming Monday," the report said.

The government has been under increasing pressure to open the border with Australia, and National wants it to happen now.

The opposition launched an attack in Parliament this week, using all its questions to harass ministers over slow progress, the Herald reported. That was after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said if New Zealand wanted tourists to spend money in Queenstown it was up to the New Zealand government to let them in.

Perhaps stung by this, Robertson and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins pointed out that Australians are not allowed to leave their country unless they've obtained an exit visa.

Hipkins said if Morrison was so keen to see Australians visit New Zealand, then he looked forward to the removal of the exit visa rule.

Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson have been defending the government's approach to a trans-Tasman bubble this week. Photo: RNZ

Robertson questioned whether Australians would be prepared to go through the hassle of getting an exit visa, which could put two-way travel out of balance. If that happened, and more Kiwis visited Australia than vice-versa, New Zealand would be the net loser, he said.

Hipkins noted only two Australian states were taking New Zealand travellers, and people from Auckland were still required to be tested on arrival and isolate until results came in.

It's those issues that ministers may be wanting to clear up before a free and fair bubble can be announced.

Controversy over teenager

The week began with another trans-Tasman controversy, a new one. There were reports on Monday that Australia had deported a 15-year-old to New Zealand.

Andrew Becroft Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The prime minister found out about it through media questions, and wasn't able to say much at her post-Cabinet press conference.

Stuff reported the boy arrived on a flight from Brisbane to Auckland last week. He was put into managed isolation but separated from other deportees.

It then transpired that Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta knew about it the previous week, but didn't alert Ardern because it was an "operational matter". The people who needed to know about it were informed, she said.

It initially appeared the teenager had been deported in the same way Australia sends back criminals, known as 501 deportees, but that didn't seem to be the case. "The minister says the circumstances of the case are very complex, but has signalled he is not a 501 deportee," RNZ reported.

This treatment of a minor raised concerns, and Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft asked for a briefing. After receiving it, he said he was even more worried.

Becroft said he didn't believe Australia had stuck to its international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. "Why put him on a plane by himself, without support, to a country that I understand - we need to check this out - he has never been to before," he said.

The boy is reported to have family in New Zealand and Oranga Tamariki is on the case. Because of privacy issues, not much more is likely to be revealed.

A cannabis long shot

The Green Party's Chloe Swarbrick might have found a way to get a bill into Parliament that would decriminalise cannabis, but it's a long shot.

Stuff reported she could do this by using a new rule that allows 61 non-executive MPs - those who are not ministers or under-secretaries - to push a bill straight onto the order paper, by-passing the traditional lucky dip ballot for member's bills.

For that to happen, Swarbrick has to persuade a sufficient number of backbenchers from any party to sign up to her bill.

"Throughout the cannabis referendum debate and discussion, you have politicians from across the aisle in every single party saying they do not want to see cannabis criminalised," Swarbrick said. "These are the kinds of discussions that are now on the table. I am hoping they are open to supporting that."

Cannabis legalisation was narrowly rejected in the referendum that was held at the same time as the last election. Decriminalisation is not the same thing, it would just remove the criminal penalty for possession.

It isn't clear whether either of the main parties would allow their MPs to support a member's bill that hasn't been drawn from the ballot, there's no precedent for it. It seems unlikely, and Swarbrick's bill will probably end up in the biscuit tin with all the others. It would be interesting to see how the vote would go if it ever did get on the order paper.

A hit for Ardern in year's first poll

The first opinion poll of the year was released this week, and it showed not much has changed since the election.

TVNZ's Colmar Brunton poll put Labour still well on top with 49 percent, a drop of four points since the previous poll, National gained two points to 27 percent. There was little or no change for the others.

Comparing these figures with the election results reveals only very slight shifts. On the night, Labour had 50 percent of the votes and National 25.6 percent.

Jacinda Ardern took a 15-point hit in the preferred prime minister poll, going down to 43 percent. National's Judith Collins dropped 4 points to 8.

Ardern's 58 percent in the December poll was considered at the time to be unsustainable and having to announce two Auckland lockdowns could have had something to do with the drop. Regardless, 43 percent is still remarkable.

Jacinda Ardern, left, and Judith Collins Photo: RNZ

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.