Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 18:18 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 18:18 | SYDNEY

Australia Kiwi choices


Graeme Dobell

10 May 2010 11:10

Australia's ambassador in Washington, Kim Beazley, has a chance to revisit a tangled set of alliance choices that tied him in knots 25 years ago.

As Australia's Defence Minister when New Zealand crashed out of ANZUS, Beazley edged carefully around the great crack that opened up in the structure of the US alliance as it was then. The experience gave Beazley a Kiwi phobia that lingered for years, a feeling shared by the defence establishment in Canberra.

In his Cabinet diary, Neal Blewett describes a meeting in 1992 discussing Closer Economic Relations, at which 'anti New Zealand rhetoric' was vented over issues from aviation policy to telecommunications to shipping. Although this was an economic discussion, the bad Kiwi taste from earlier defence experiences lingered.

Beazley, quite consumed by a New Zealand phobia (exaggerated perhaps by his experience in selling Australian-built ANZAC frigates to New Zealand) — arrived late and swung into action. He thundered that — in spite all their brave talk — what the New Zealanders wanted was for Australia to be 'the patsy for them and do their dirty work'. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans attacked Beazley, saying he was 'a bully of pissant little countries'.

Blewett was not above a bit of pissant-stomping himself. A month later, he records giving a burst to the Kiwi Trade Minister and Canberra ambassador about 'the growing sense that New Zealanders wanted all the advantages of being an Australian State without any of the obligations'.

These long ago arguments about Kiwi free-loading will bubble again if there is a prospect of re-launching the trilateral alliance.

Beazley was the Defence Minister at the 1986 San Francisco meeting when the US ejected New Zealand from the San Francisco treaty system. The ambassador's memories of that time will likely affect any comtemplated discussion about Australia's optimum defence relationship with New Zealand. Recall the position Australia took back in 1985-86 as Washington cut the alliance cord to Wellington: Canberra argued that New Zealand should remain within ANZUS, but would not push that view at the expense of Australia's alliance with the US. Any act to banish the Kiwis should not be seen as irrevocable: at some future date the third leg of ANZUS could be restored. Formally, Canberra said it would not mediate between Washington and Wellington. Australia would have two alliances - one with the US, one with New Zealand — but the two would not touch or intermingle.

The 25-year breach means Australia and New Zealand have been spared any real need to talk about a proper alignment, or even merging, of their military capabilities. New Zealand's status as alliance pariah, courtesy of its nuclear purity, prevented any discussion of deeper military integration with Australia. Any such move would bump up against Australia's more important bilateral alliance with the US.

Past phobias made this a comfortable position for many in Canberra. All energy can be given to the great and powerful friend, not the concerns of the pissant. For the Kiwi perspective, Jim Rolfe outlines the position in his usual measured and meticulous manner. 

Many New Zealand officials believe that Australia is happy to have New Zealand out of the ANZUS system, because this allows Australia to deal with the US on a bilateral basis rather than through the multilateral forum of ANZUS in which its voice was diluted by New Zealand's. There are suggestions that Australia is more restrictive in its dealings with New Zealand 'to protect US interests' than are either the United Kingdom or Canada.

New Zealand officials also believe that the intelligence and information-sharing system between the five states ('five eyes') has turned into a 'four eyes' system on many topics, restricting the information to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the US.

Whether or not these suggestions and beliefs are objectively accurate, they colour the relationships, especially that between New Zealand and Australia.

If New Zealand returns to ANZUS, Canberra and Wellington can no longer use Washington as the excuse. The times — and economic necessity — mean the two sides could think about closer military cooperation and coordination, while giving proper credit to what the Kiwis bring to the equation.

A line I've used before from the Australian Army - 'New Zealand soldiers are better than Ghurkhas - you don't have to pay them and they bring their own officers' - sits beside that offered by former New Zealand Prime Minister, Mike Moore: 'The Australians are our best friends, whether we like them or not'.

Military integration is in the same difficult-but-not-unimaginable category as a single Oz-Kiwi currency. New Zealand has managed the trick of economic integration without giving up symbols of sovereignty. Beyond the single market, though, lies a tough perennial: a single currency for a single economy. The currency would be the Australian dollar. Like a single currency, military integration asks hard questions of New Zealand. The Kiwis would have to agree to assume more of the shape and colouring - and symbols - of the West Island.

For a fresh military discussion, though, we have a venerable guide. Go back to the document that was foundational, even before ANZUS: the 1944 ANZAC Treaty still outlines unfinished military business. The terms of the treaty between Australia and New Zealand call for permanent machinery for military collaboration and cooperation:

  • continuous consultation in all defence matters of mutual interest;
  • the organisation, equipment, training and exercising of the armed forces under a common doctrine;
  • joint planning;
  • interchange of staff; and
  • the coordination of policy for the production of munitions, aircraft and supply items, and for shipping, to ensure the greatest possible degree of mutual aid consistent with the maintenance of the policy of self-sufficiency in local production.

How about that for a set of aims still to be realised? Joint planning plus common doctrine for everything that matters. If the US gives the Kiwis a hug, Australia will have to think again about a military marriage.

Photo by Flickr user willposh, used under a Creative Commons licence.