Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 00:29 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 00:29 | SYDNEY

Is the NZ election almost irrelevant for Canberra?

21 October 2008 08:48

Guest blogger: Robert Ayson (pictured) is Director of Studies, Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence, ANU.

Just a decade ago it would have been foolish to argue that New Zealand’s general election results held little consequence for Australian policy. In the blue corner sat the incumbent National Party coalition, which looked fondly on the old days of an active NZ-US alliance relationship, claimed that Australia and New Zealand constituted a single strategic entity, and that New Zealand needed to maintain a ‘balanced’ defence force (including replacements for the Skyhawks).

In the red corner were Helen Clark’s politically hungry Labour team, which claimed that there was no 'unfinished business’ in Wellington’s relationship with Washington, which emphasised New Zealand’s strategic autonomy (including from Australia), was regarded as a little too enthusiastic about peacekeeping and was expected to cancel New Zealand’s air combat forces.

We all know what happened in the 1999 election (and again in 2002 and 2005). And when Clark first became Prime Minister, her government’s defence posture did not go down especially well over here. But Labour came to power in a period of close Australia-NZ cooperation in the nearer region: the Interfet mission in East Timor. Canberra and Wellington went on to work together in the Solomon Islands and Tonga interventions. Thanks largely to New Zealand’s contribution to the Afghanistan conflict, the Clark Government substantially improved relations with Washington too. And Canberra eventually got used to the force structure decisions and strategic outlook which set New Zealand apart.

If John Key’s revitalised National Party wins office on 8 November – and the chances of this happening seem very good, even if it means another coalition government under New Zealand’s proportional voting system – all will certainly not change from Canberra’s perspective. After years of struggling to punch holes in Clark’s strategic outlook, National has largely come to accept the blueprint.

In a major statement issued last year, the National Party’s foreign policy team (including a number of diplomats-turned-politicians) argued for a bipartisan approach. National now agrees with Labour that New Zealand’s defence commitments in the South Pacific should be a major force structure shaper. Unlike his predecessor Don Brash, Mr Key has not flown the risky kite of a policy change on nuclear warships. And while National wants to boost New Zealand’s engagement with Asia, it is fairly silent on what that means in defence terms. This replicates the inverse doughnut evident in Labour policy: Kiwis do the immediate neighbourhood and some international operations (including peacekeeping and Afghanistan), but won’t prepare for a fight in Asia.

For a Rudd Government shifting its strategic gaze to the great power dynamics of Asia, this may reinforce the essential irrelevance of New Zealand as a defence actor in the wider region. New Zealand will still want to be part of all the regional gatherings and Mr Rudd’s Asia-Pacific Community discussions but will lack even a modicum of strategic weight to go along with its interests in regional diplomacy and especially in trade.

Yet interestingly, the economic angle is something which might just get Mr Key noticed in Canberra. An accomplished foreign exchange dealer before he entered politics, Key has argued that New Zealand needs to ‘diminish the advantage’  that Australia had (supposedly) gained from its FTA with the US. Australia might just be reminded in the coming years that New Zealand can be an economic competitor and not just a partner. But on the whole, Australians may barely notice the political transition in Wellington which many New Zealanders now seem ready to witness.