Australia and New Zealand have become embroiled in an extraordinary diplomatic spat over claims the New Zealand opposition colluded with the Australian Labor party in an attempt “to try and bring down the government”.
During a febrile day of politics in both countries, Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said New Zealand’s opposition party was threatening the stability of a usually robust partnership between the two nations.
She said she would find it “very hard to build trust” if New Zealand’s opposition Labour party were to win the general election in September.
Her comments came only 24 hours after it was revealed that Australia’s deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, held New Zealand citizenship and may be ineligible to sit in parliament under the Australian constitution, which disqualifies dual nationals.
Malcolm Turnbull’s government currently commands a majority of one seat in the House of Representatives.
But Australia’s ruling coalition has now accused the country’s own opposition Labor party of planting a question in the New Zealand parliament in order to extract the information about Joyce’s nationality.
“Clearly the Labor party are involved in a conspiracy using a foreign government, in this case New Zealand, to try and bring down the Australian government,” he said.
“How many other foreign governments, or foreign political parties in other countries, has the Labor party been colluding with to try to undermine the Australian government?
The NZ Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern, has hit back at the criticism, accusing the Australian government of spreading lies. She said she had discussed with the Australian high commissioner her “disappointment” with the accusations, and criticised Ms Bishop’s “false claims”.
She told a press conference: “My first knowledge of this situation regarding Mr Barnaby Joyce was yesterday afternoon when the issue broke in the media.”
The saga began on Monday when it was revealed Mr Joyce was a dual national on account of his father being born in Dunedin.
Mr Joyce made the admission after media inquiries on the subject, but it subsequently also emerged that on August 9th the New Zealand Labour MP Chris Hipkins submitted two written questions to the internal affairs minister, Peter Dunne, in parliament, both of an unusual nature.
“Are children born in Australia to parents who are New Zealand citizens automatically citizens of New Zealand; if not, what process do they need to follow in order to become New Zealand citizens?” Mr Hipkins asked.
He also asked: “Would a child born in Australia to a New Zealand father automatically have New Zealand citizenship?”
Ms Ardern – elected as leader just over two weeks ago – said she had not been aware of the questions before Monday. “I learnt that one of my members of parliament had asked two questions that related to issues around citizenship. Mr Hipkins should never have asked those questions – I have made that absolutely clear to him, and he acknowledges he shouldn’t have asked them.”
She said Mr Hipkins did not know to whom the citizenship questions related and “had no knowledge of Mr Barnaby Joyce’s situation”.
“Regardless of whether or not we knew the basis on which those questions were being asked, they should never have been asked. Australian domestic politics is for them, not for us, we should never have been involved and that is a line I maintain.”
She confirmed that Mr Hipkins had submitted the questions to parliament after talking with a friend who works for the Australian Labor party.
Mr Hipkins told Radio NZ the pair had never discussed Mr Joyce’s citizenship status, that his friend did not expressly ask him to submit the questions to parliament, and that he did so out of ill-advised curiosity.
“Had I known that was where things were going to land up, I wouldn’t have got involved in it,” Mr Hipkins told RNZ.
“There has been absolutely no collusion between the New Zealand Labour party and the Australian Labor party when it comes to the situation the Australian deputy prime minister has found himself in.”
Mr Dunne supported the New Zealand Labour party’s position, tweeting that it was “utter nonsense” that Mr Hipkins’ questions had instigated the revelation of Mr Joyce’s New Zealand citizenship, and that internal affairs had begun investigating his citizenship after requests from Australian media.
However, despite the strong denials, Australian government MPs have lashed out.
“New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia,” said Ms Bishop.
The New Zealand foreign minister Gerry Brownlee seemed to side with the Australian government. “It is extraordinary that a New Zealand member of parliament has allowed himself to be used by a party in a different country,” he told local media outside parliament.
“With an intent to bring another party in that country down . . . . I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before.”
It has been a tense year for the Anzac nations, which generally refer to each other as “family”, after tweaks by the Australian government meant it would be harder for New Zealanders to be granted citizenship, and would also have their university fees tripled if they chose to study in Australia.
Advocates for New Zealanders say they are treated like second-class citizens in Australia, with many unable to access health and disability social welfare, despite paying taxes.