Australian foreign minister accuses Labour of meddling after Hipkins' trans-Tasman favour

Labour MP Chris Hipkins has sparked allegations of meddling in Australia's politics with a favour to a friend in the Australian Labor Party. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A trans-Tasman stoush has erupted over the surprise news that Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is a New Zealand citizen. Accusations of meddling by foreign powers have flown back and forth, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

With concerns about the treatment of Kiwi expats in Australia, the news that one of their most senior politicians is one of our own would normally seem a welcome opportunity to improve relations.

Yet the revelation has sparked allegations of meddling in foreign politics and threatened a further deterioration between the two countries.

Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, told the country’s Parliament on Monday he had decided to refer himself to the High Court after the New Zealand High Commission told him he could be a New Zealand citizen by descent through his father.

Joyce is the fifth Australian politician to be referred to Australia’s judiciary for a possible breach of the country’s constitution, which does not allow dual citizens to serve in Parliament.

Unlike the MPs in the other cases, however, Joyce is clinging firmly to his Cabinet post and seat - if he was to be forced out of Parliament, Australia’s Coalition Government would lose its slender one-seat majority.

Curiously, Joyce claimed the High Commission’s contact was sparked by enquiries made by the NZ Labour Party - later revealed to be in the form of two written questions submitted to Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne.

Speaking before Labour’s weekly caucus meeting on Tuesday, Hipkins told media he had submitted the written questions after speaking to a friend in the Australian Labor Party, and had not known Joyce was involved “in any way”.

“I had no idea that it was going to have this particular impact on Australian domestic politics - had I known that, I probably wouldn't have because frankly I don’t want to get involved in it.”

Hipkins said it was his decision to lodge the questions as part of a broader interest in the treatment of New Zealanders living in Australia, and he did not want to affect Australian politics.

“Let’s be clear, I am resolutely committed to bringing down Mr Joyce and the National Government, but it’s a different Mr Joyce and a different National Government.”

Hipkins was admonished by Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, who told media she had made her position clear to the party whip.

“I've certainly relayed to him that it's my expectation that we focus on our own election rather than matters that are of no concern to us...

“He didn't know who was involved but I've made it clear to him that regardless of those circumstances this was not an issue that we should have been involved in."

Via Twitter, Dunne dismissed suggestions that Hipkins was responsible for Joyce’s predicament as “utter nonsense”, adding: “While Hipkins’ questions were inappropriate, they were not the instigator. Australian media inquiries [sic] were.”

That didn’t stop Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop from wading into the row, telling Australian media she would find it “very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the Government of Australia”.

"I'm referring to Bill Shorten using a foreign political party to raise questions in a foreign parliament deliberately designed to undermine confidence in the Australian Government."

Bishop was backed up by her Kiwi counterpart Gerry Brownlee, who said it was “extraordinary that a New Zealand member of Parliament has allowed himself to be used by a party in a different country with an intent to bring another party in that country down”.

“It’s just an inexplicable act, and frankly I think there are all sorts of issues with Mr Hipkins allowing himself to be used by someone outside of the Parliament for what are very odd political reasons.”

Brownlee said Hipkins’ actions would not help the trans-Tasman relationship and left Labour “somewhat short” in its criticisms of the treatment of Kiwi expats living in Australia.

While his position was somewhat at odds with Dunne’s, Brownlee was insistent it was Hipkins’ questions which caused the issue to be raised.

Bishop’s extraordinary remarks, no doubt a result of her government’s desperation to hold onto its majority, led some critics to level the same accusation of meddling against her, with New Zealand’s election less than two months away.

The comments led to a statement from Ardern decrying the “false claims”, and an emergency meeting with outgoing Australian High Commissioner Peter Woolcott.

Fronting the media afterwards, Ardern said the “open and honest” discussion was a chance to reiterate her stance on Hipkins’ questions.

“Australian domestic politics is for them, not for us, and that is the line I maintain.”

She was “certainly disappointed” by Bishop’s remarks, but would not rise to the bait when asked whether it was tantamount to interference in foreign politics.

“The relationship between the New Zealand Labour Party and the Australian government is too important for politics to get in the way.”

Meanwhile, perhaps keen to end the torrent of sheep jokes, Joyce announced he had renounced his New Zealand citizenship.

That will not stop the High Court case from going ahead, and should Joyce be forced to step down temporarily, the trans-Tasman relationship may become more frayed yet.