16 Oct 2015

Australian PM's diplomacy skills to be tested

3:01 pm on 16 October 2015

An Australian journalist covering Malcolm Turnbull's visit to New Zealand says the new prime minister's handling of the deportation issue will be an early test of his diplomacy skills.

Malcolm Turnbull speaks during a news conference after winning the party leadership ballot on 14 September.

Malcolm Turnbull speaks during a news conference after winning the party leadership ballot on 14 September. Photo: Getty Images

Mr Turnbull arrives in New Zealand today amid growing anger at his government's tough line on detention and deportation of New Zealand criminals.

The ABC's political editor, Chris Uhlmann, will be in New Zealand covering the trip and said - with an average of one New Zealander being deported from Australia every day - Mr Turnbull might find the reception a tad frosty.

Some have lived in Australia from an early age and it is the only home they know, and nearly 200 are in detention centres waiting for a decision on their deportation.

This country's prime minister, John Key, has said he expects about 1000 New Zealanders are liable for being sent back as a result of serving jail sentences of over a year in total.

He has said he will take up their cases with Mr Turnbull this weekend.

Mr Uhlmann told Morning Report that Mr Turnbull's handling of the deportee issue would be a key early test of his ability to juggle international and domestic politics.

"He'll be caught between the rock of New Zealand and the hard place of his own backbench - because to do anything in Australia at the moment to move backwards on border protection, particularly given that he is is seen here as being somewhat softer than [former prime minister] Tony Abbott, will push him into a quite difficult position."

Prime Minister John Key

Prime Minister John Key has said he will raise the detention centre issue with Mr Turnbull during this weekend's visit. Photo: Getty Images

Mr Uhlmann said he was not sure if Mr Turnbull had much room to manoeuvre.

"I'm just not sure how much room he has to move. I'm sure that they are probably working on what form of words they might come up with or what they can do by way of concession to New Zealand."

He said one of the reasons Mr Turnbull was going to New Zealand as his first port of call was to show that the relationship with New Zealand was as important to Australia as it was to New Zealand.

"I'm sure that he'll probably be trying to think of how he can get something that gives the prime minister of New Zealand a win. I don't think any prime minister of Australia wants to leave a prime minister of New Zealand hanging."

The change of law, which came in at the end of last year, saw Australia lower the threshold of what constituted an offence for which someone could be deported.