60 Minutes: Jacinda Ardern responds to Australian media's 'perception' of NZ-China relationship

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has responded to 60 Minutes Australia's controversial exploration of New Zealand's relationship with China, rejecting its framing as a "perception issue" rather than "reality". 

The episode, which aired on Sunday night, put New Zealand's alliance with China under the spotlight after months of debate regarding Aotearoa's position on the latter's alleged human rights abuses. 

There has been speculation that the Government is remaining quiet in order to protect its $33 billion two-way trade partnership with the economic powerhouse, while Australia - a nation that has publicly condemned China's reported breaches - struggles with retaliatory trade tariffs imposed by Beijing.

Last week, an incendiary promotional video teased the episode as an exposé into "New Xi-Land's" activities - referencing Xi Jinping, the President of the People's Republic of China - alongside the tagline: "We thought they were our best friends, but it looks like they've ditched us for a fast Chinese buck." 

And now, 60 Minutes has described it as a case of "dollars versus decency". By refusing to sign a Five Eyes intelligence statement last year condemning China's approach to Hong Kong, New Zealand abandoned its morals to maintain a lucrative trade partnership with the powerhouse, it said, suggesting that New Zealand has continued to cosy up with China at the expense of its trans-Tasman ally.

In January, Trade Minister Damien O'Connor came under fire for telling Australia to practise more diplomacy with China, while in April, right-wing Australian television host Andrew Bolt said New Zealand was backstabbing its trans-Tasman partner by not signing up to a statement expressing concerns about a study into COVID-19. Australia had previously angered China by  calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus.

Meanwhile, Australia is "paying a high price for storming the high moral ground", 60 Minutes reporter Tom Steinfort claimed, with the country subjected to a growing list of export restrictions in response to its criticism of Beijing, including its opposition against China's persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

But Ardern has hit back at the allegations put forward by the programme. Speaking to The AM Show on Monday, the morning after the broadcast, Ardern reiterated that Australia is not just a best friend, but "family".

"I would consider them family - they are our closest family, in so many respects. If I think about the leaders I've had contact with over the last 15 months through COVID, it has been [Australian Prime Minister] Scott [Morrison] and Australia - at any time, we can pick up the phone," she said.

When host Duncan Garner asked the Prime Minister why Australia and New Zealand "don't go in as one" to stand up to China, Ardern said "we do - more often than we don't". 

"I think what we're dealing with here is more of a perception issue - particularly, I notice, from the Australian media, than reality," she continued. 

"I don't want to play too much into what is a perception rather than what we know to be happening on the ground."

She said New Zealand's independent foreign policy will often see it take a position that aligns with other countries, while sometimes it will be "just us and Australia".

"And sometimes we'll make statements on our own," she added.

The Prime Minister also firmly rejected suggestions that New Zealand has been turning a blind eye to China's reported human rights breaches. 

"The most important point is that we will raise issues when we see it - we just choose different ways in order to raise those issues. We are not silent in our concerns," she said.

"I say it publicly. I think probably what leaders in Beijing hear is when I raise issues directly, which I do... we'll do things in private, we'll say the same in public as well."

Both Ardern and Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta have repeatedly expressed concern about China's activities. In April, Mahuta condemned China for its alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region in a joint statement with her Australian counterpart, noting there is "clear evidence" of the atrocities.

Earlier in May, the New Zealand Parliament announced that "severe human rights abuses" are occurring in Xinjiang, angering China. However, the declaration was weaker than intended. It was initially worded to label the alleged atrocities as genocide, but that was watered down after deliberations decided a proclamation of genocide should only be made after a "rigourous assessment" of evidence. 

'Every family has its issues'

The Prime Minister was also grilled on the ongoing issue of deportation. Under its 501 immigration policy, Australia can legally deport non-Australian citizens sentenced to 12 months in prison, no matter how long it has been since they completed their sentence. The deportees are known as 501s, under the character section of the Australian Migration Act allowing their visas to be cancelled.

The majority of 501s have criminal records and many have lived in Australia for most of their lives, with little to no personal connection to New Zealand. Many of the deportees will be forced to leave behind their children and family in Australia. 

Deportation has been a persistent sore spot in trans-Tasman relations, with New Zealand frequently expressing opposition to the policy - which is believed to be linked to a spike in organised crime in New Zealand. 

"This has been a constant for me since I've been in this job - I have consistently raised the issue of deportations," Ardern said, adding that Australia is "legally able to do what they are doing".

"There will never be a meeting where I won't raise this issue… we consider it to be wrong. You don't ignore the things you consider to be wrong." 

Deportation is another issue that has led some to question if the trans-Tasman relationship is deteriorating, with Garner pressing that "family don't do that to each other".

Ardern continued that every family has its points of contention. 

"Every family I know has its issues, but at the end of the day, you're still family. I'd say that means our relationship is family in the truest sense of the word. We do have issues that we don't agree on, but we agree on far more than we disagree," she said. 

Ardern's comments on Monday reiterate her stance last week. When asked by reporters what her thoughts were on the dramatic 60 Minutes trailer, the Prime Minister said she "would completely disagree with the way that they are framing New Zealand and our relationship with Australia".

Meanwhile, initial reactions on social media following Sunday night's broadcast show a generally positive response, with many appearing to agree with 60 Minutes' stance. This could be due to the programme not being available to view in New Zealand until this morning, meaning only those in Australia could view it last night.

"60 Minutes - gutless reaction from NZ over questions over China’s human rights abuses," said one.

"60 minutes story tonight that NZ trade is doing well because [the] NZ government is diplomatic [when] dealing with China, rather than talking tough in public to win favour with US [and] then being surprised when it has a negative impact on Australian companies Chinese trade. Stunning analysis," said another.

Another accused New Zealand of "selling its soul" to China after watching the programme.

"Best news report by 60 minutes for a long time. Shame on NZ," they tweeted.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is currently in New Zealand for a meeting with Ardern, which will be held in Queenstown on Monday.