Tuesday 27 Sep 2022 | 03:52 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 27 Sep 2022 | 03:52 | SYDNEY

The Kiwi as puny predator


Graeme Dobell

21 February 2011 16:42

The Australia-New Zealand relationship is set by history and geography, but fueled by the edgy animosity of eternal neighbours.

In taking the temper across the Tasman, consider these two jests that also contain truths. Here is an Australian Army compliment for the quality of their Kiwi counterparts: 'The Maori Army' Better than Gurkhas! They bring their own officers and you don't have to pay them'. And here is the slogan to be found on T-shirts all over Kiwiland: 'I support New Zealand and anyone else playing Australia'.

The edge side of the relationship had something of a run following Julia Gillard's trip across the ditch last week. The Interpreter got some flack for not writing much about the trip, while offering this defence: 'It's hard to think of two other sovereign states in the world as closely aligned — politically and culturally — as New Zealand and Australia.' Closely aligned, yes, but with plenty of room for quiet struggles over who is on top and who is doing the thinking – or leading.

I got involved in a trans-Tasman email discussion about the Gillard visit, and this Kiwi comment got me pondering: 'From the NZ perspective, the ANZAC relationship is asymmetrical and highly predatory. It can't last that way.'

It wouldn't be hard to find plenty of Kiwis to endorse the idea of Australia as the big, predatory partner. But turning the thought over led me to consider the idea of New Zealand as a nimble operator with sharp policy instincts, even if its teeth aren't that big. And often that Kiwi predator gets a lot of what it wants. When Julia Gillard turns her mind to the US, she could ponder the thought that New Zealand often gets a better result out of its asymmetrical relationship with Oz than Australia does with Washington.

In both the economic and the alliance dimensions, New Zealand has plenty to be happy about. On the military side, NZ manages to operate as both a free rider and an alliance partner. This is a difficult trick to pull off. New Zealand pushed its alliance with the US over the edge while maintaining the alliance with Australia. And under Obama, NZ is now re-embraced as a virtual ally.

In the push and shove of the ANZAC alliance, the Kiwis have often delivered the decisive shove. From deciding to buy only two of the joint ANZAC ships to scrapping its fighter jets, Wellington has gone its own way in the face of a lot of Canberra pressure. The new element in the story is the fiasco delivered by the run-down of Australia's amphibious lift fleet. If Australia needs to move troops around the Pacific for the next little while, it will be aboard a Kiwi ship. For the first time in a long time, naval bragging rights reside in NZ.

For all the things the Australian and New Zealand military have done together, the experiences of the past 25 years have created some ambivalence about the Kiwis in parts of Australia's defence establishment. In a previous column, I recounted the cabinet exchange in Canberra long ago when the Defence Minister thundered that all the Kiwis wanted was for Australia to be 'the patsy for them and do their dirty work'. To which the Foreign Minister rather tartly replied that the Defence Minister was 'a bully of pissant little countries'.

On the military side, those wounds are largely healed, if never to be forgotten. It's with the economic relationship that much is still to be done. The 1983 Closer Economic Relations Agreement is now the heart of the relationship. The documentary history of the creation of CER shows that getting the deal was quite a battle. Towards the end of the talks, Australian diplomats worried that, if the treaty could not be achieved, it would cause a fundamental rupture in the relationship. Mark that as just one more proof that negotiating with Kiwis is tough.

In achieving CER, NZ got an economic marriage with Australia without giving up any of the symbols of its independence – from passports to currency to the central bank.

Whenever the talk turns to taking trans-Tasman integration further, such symbols are placed on the table. On the economic front, Wellington confronts the free rider dilemma – the ride is never really free. It's a matter of what you're prepared to sacrifice. In a column for the New Zealand Herald, Fran O'Sullivan pondered the costs NZ is already paying: 'The steady drain of our talent to Australia in search of greater opportunities and higher wages coupled with the remorseless transformation of New Zealand into a branch economy has a price.'

To take the next economic steps, the Kiwis are going to have to embrace more of the Australian part of the term 'Australasian'. The choices are tough. They don't have to surrender the All Blacks, but what price the New Zealand dollar'

Photo by Flickr user The Rohit.