Opinion, review: Australian 60 Minutes’ hit job on Jacinda Ardern Government ‘cosying up to’ China

OPINION

It was a smooth transition last night on Australian TV as the latest episode of Celebrity Apprentice flicked over into 60 Minutes’ supposed expose on New Zealand “cosying up to Beijing” for their billions of trade dollars.

The last scene of Celebrity Apprentice was billionaire British business magnate Lord Alan Sugar handing down a pompous sermon to a petulant little bloke who’d once finished second in Australian Idol who then quickly stormed out.

A minute later at 8.30pm, we had 60 Minutes reporter Tom Steinfort staring down the barrel delivering the opening monologue of his segment entitled Kiwis Might Fly – the promo for which had caused mild hype and much sniggering among Kiwis last week.

From reality TV into current affairs programming there was little change in objectivity of narrative tone, moral nuance or the comically manipulative background music.

In front of a video screen plastered with Chinese and Kiwi flag shipping crates, Steinfort hands down some alarming truths on the divergent paths which Australia and New Zealand have apparently taken on their foreign policy and trade dealings with China.

Essentially it was a case of “dollars versus decency”.

The New Zealand Government had by not signing a Five Eyes intelligence statement last year condemning China’s human rights abuses – and allegedly remaining “silent” on their military expansionism – sacrificed morals to maintain a lucrative trade partnership.

As a reward, New Zealand’s economy was apparently “flying high” at the moment, Steinfort says – somehow ignoring the fact the NZ Treasury is expecting the Government to produce a budget deficit for the next six years during the Covid economic recovery.

A telling sign of the innuendo that would transpire over the next 30 minutes was one quickly cut snip of Australian PM Scott Morrison orating on the principled trade sacrifice his country was making with China juxtaposed directly with a grab of Jacinda Ardern speaking te reo.

It’s a not-too-subtle taunt to Ardern’s woke credentials and international fame as a progressive leader.

In contrast, Steinfort said “Australia is paying a high price for storming the high moral ground” by publicly standing up to China on human rights and the persecution of the Uighurs Muslim minority.

Front and centre in this sacrifice is each country’s respective wine industry.

China confirmed in March this year it would impose up to 200 per cent tariffs on Australian wine exports.

Owner of Babich wines in Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay, David Babich, told Steinfort he would be “step right up” to any Chinese wine merchants and markets that had abandoned Australian vineyards since the tariffs.

“New Zealand is a big farm selling product to the world so no one’s trying to ruffle feathers. That would be very damaging to New Zealand,” Babich said.

The Kiwi winemaker said the New Zealand Government had no option other than a “softly, softly approach” in its dealings with China and any accompanying trade negotiations.

Babich says 90 per cent of his revenue is from exports and he was aware of one Kiwi winemaker whose business relied on 80 per cent of its revenue from exclusively Chinese exports.

Then travelling to Tahbilk winery just outside Melbourne, Steinfort prefaces with: “China was the goose that laid the golden egg for Aussie winemakers”.

Head of Tahbilk winery Alister Purbrick has a very contrasting attitude to his Kiwi market competitor Babich.

Despite losing his “biggest and most profitable” export market in China, accounting for 25 per cent of his revenue, Purbrick says he’s pleased with the Morrison government’s public criticism of China.

“I think the Government has made the right call,” Purbrick says.

“Profits come and go and there’s challenges always in running businesses but your core beliefs are there to stay. That’s culturally what you’re all about.

“My expectation of our Government is that they would call things from a moral and ethical perspective.”

It seems Purbrick only became aware of China’s human rights abuses recently – and the five years prior when his business shot up in Chinese export sales he was unaware of how ethically compromised that revenue was.

I’m sure Purbrick’s own integrity means that if those 200 per cent tariffs are removed from Australian wine exports to China when the five-year tariff period is up, he will continue to avoid sales to Chinese markets on principle.

The 60 Minutes team then speaks to Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who makes some of the more considered and balanced comments in the piece.

Davis says that “New Zealand made an error of judgment” in not signing a Five Eyes intelligence statement opposing China last year.

He is one of the few people in the piece who speaks in terms of diplomacy and appearances rather than rigid moral dilemmas.

Davis notes that “China thinks of diplomacy in 19th Century terms” and the expectation that small countries will simply acquiesce to larger ones. China uses “wolf warrior diplomats”, Davis says, which is characterised by confrontational rhetoric and courting controversy.

The climax of the 60 Minutes piece, however, is Steinfort’s interaction with Jacinda Ardern in a Beehive foyer media pack.

Standing outside Wellington’s Beehive building he criticises both New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, and Minister for Trade Damien O’Connor, for allegedly refusing interview requests for weeks.

Then the jousting with Ardern begins, but not before a mocking clip of the PM walking down the halls of Parliament to haughtily grandiose classical music.

Yet, when it actually gets to the Ardern v Steinfort showdown there’s not much of it.

“Welcome,” Ardern says to Steinfort with a beaming smile. “You can see from the smiles in the scrum everyone is very pleased to have you here.”

No direct response from Steinfort in real time, but rather a voiceover of him saying: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s charm quickly turned to chastening when she realised why we were in town.”

Then back to the face to face, Steinfort says “we want to talk to you about China. There has been criticism your nation has gone soft on China. Do you have to sometimes bite your tongue at times knowing the sensitivities of the regime in Beijing?”

A stern “No” in reply from Ardern.

Pressed for elaboration, Ardern offers: “I reject the premise of the question. The idea that we are doing anything other than stand up strongly for our views and our values and our independent foreign policy – I completely reject the notion that we have gone quote ‘soft’.”

Filtered through the 60 Minutes Kiwis Might Fly piece is a familiar face in Mike Hosking who is introduced as the “voice of the people”.

Asked whether he thinks New Zealand is simply being pragmatic with China, Hosking responds “exactly”.

“And what is wrong with that? Trade is about pragmatism,” Hosking says.

“You don’t want to be on a collision course with a country that I think we all agree wants to be a superpower… they want to dominate the world. But it is what it is. So in the ensuing period you either get on and do business with them and coalesce at that level or you get all angsty and pick a fight and who’s going to win that fight? I don’t think it’s going to be Australia. And it’s certainly not going to be New Zealand.”

The piece ends with a very profound message from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Malcolm Davis set to footage of the “lone soldier” Anzac statue that is erected at war memorials around the county.

“I don’t think that democracy should be negotiable. I think it’s an essential element to our society and our way of life because once we lose it we never get it back,” Davis offers.

But whatever the real thinking is within the Ardern Cabinet on their relationship with China, I would hazard a guess none of them would have reached for a bottle of Australian Shiraz to ease their nerves to sleep last night courtesy of Steinfort’s 60 minutes piece.

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