While the Australia-New Zealand relationship is as deep as it is wide, recent controversies should be taken as a warning for Australians not to take their southern neighbour for granted.
When Australia’s newest Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited his counterpart John Key this month the usual friendly platitudes about ANZAC kinship were drowned out by the issue of Australia’s deportation of New Zealanders. There are about 1000 people in Australian detention centres who, while technically New Zealand citizens, have spent the vast majority of their lives in Australia and so have a varied, and in some cases tenuous, affinity with New Zealand. These people, previously imprisoned for crimes carrying sentences of over one year, are at the centre of an issue that threatens to become the fulcrum of pent-up Kiwi frustration with Australia.
While the issue has garnered mild attention in Australia, the New Zealand press has been unrelenting in their coverage of the story. Kiwis have been arguing that the injustice of the deportations is three-fold: citing the detention of people who have already served their sentences as inhumane, arguing that New Zealand stands to receive hardened criminals and asserting that these people are being deported to a country with which they have little or no connection. The flames of anxiety and anger have been stoked by an opportunistic New Zealand opposition eager to place pressure on a third term Prime Minister who is riding high in the polls, as evidenced by the recent public visit of New Zealand’s Opposition Spokesman for Police and Corrections to Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre.
The issue is gaining traction as it taps into a latent discontent felt in New Zealand over the state of the trans-Tasman relationship. For over thirty years the cornerstone of the Australia-New Zealand relationship has been the Closer Economic Relations (CER) Agreement, a bilateral free trade agreement lauded as one of the most comprehensive and effective in the world. Since the CER was signed in 1983 it has been complemented by a bevy of other agreements, partnerships and memorandums of understanding. As a result, today practically every Australian government body has a direct working relationship with their New Zealand counterparts and private business and travel moves between each country with unparalleled ease. The relationship is close. Very close. But what this proximity means is that all the low hanging fruits on the diplomatic tree have already been picked. What remains for the trans-Tasman relationship is the resolution of lingering differences that have remained unresolved for decades and it is in these issues that the inherent inequality of the relationship is made painfully apparent.
For example, NZ’s business community has long bemoaned the double-taxation of Kiwi-owned investments in Australia and have lobbied their government hard to encourage an Australian compromise. But with the taxation of Kiwi-owned investments worth over $800 million in Australian tax revenue, the issue remains dead-locked. This is also the case with New Zealand’s efforts to broker a trans-Tasman therapeutic goods watch-dog as well as with their pursuit of greater expatriate access to Australian social services. In all these areas and more, Australia is large enough a party to just say ‘no’, and each time this happens the Kiwi’s assumptions that the relationship is an equal one are dashed. Australia too has been making its own false assumptions.
Australians assume that New Zealand and New Zealanders are really just like us, that they share our worldview, and so, share our interests. This is not the case. New Zealand is as unique a country as any other with its own idiosyncratic worldview and diplomatic nuances that need to be acknowledged to be properly navigated. New Zealand’s foreign policy differs in key areas from ours, with the Kiwi’s current United Nations Security Council tenure reflecting New Zealand’s bolder activism on issues such as Israel-Palestine, human rights and UNSC veto reform.
The truth is that Australians have come to think of consensus with New Zealand as a fait accompli. However by making such ill-informed assumptions about the relationship we have made ourselves blind to critical fractures we would otherwise pre-empt.
For example, Australians may assume that New Zealand experiences, as we do, persistent bi-partisanship on issues pertaining to defence. They do not. Military operations and defence spending is a hotly contested issue in New Zealand, something of which Australians should be more wary. For if New Zealand military spending were ever to drop below about 1% of GDP the defence of New Zealand would begin to become a much larger Australian liability.
In multiple areas critical to Australia’s role in the world New Zealand is a vital partner. In Indo-Pacific security, border protection, counter-terrorism and particularly in the stabilisation of volatile Pacific states, New Zealand is a key actor in Australia’s desired order. Maintaining the strength of the relationship will doubtless require more diplomatic tact on Australia’s part, but most importantly it requires Australia to keep a closer eye on the people-to-people links that underscore the powerful kinship that has made both nations such good partners to date.
William Stoltz is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: nznationalparty (Flickr: Creative Commons)