New Zealand does some things better than Australia
21 Feb 2013|
Members of TG Rata 8 perform a Haka to welcome TG Rata 9 onto the RAMSI Compound.

This is part II of a series on Australia–New Zealand relations (part I here).

To stray into areas that are simultaneously sacred yet deeply unsafe, look at New Zealand’s strength in important areas such as rugby, race horses and the ability to make oceans of sauvignon blanc that millions of Australians guzzle as acidic nectar.

On race horses, Australia will never concede. On rugby, Oz has reached a state of resigned grace about being stomped by the All Blacks. On wine, the marvellous mixture from Marlborough—the top selling white in Oz—is driving Australian wine producers demented, moaning about the NZ blanc’s resemblance to cat’s pee, body odour and a noxious weed.

The whine about the wine prompts the thought that it’s good to see traditional standards of invective in trans-Tasman dialogue are being maintained. But let us turn from bruising topics like booze and ball games to the calmer, gentler realms of defence and diplomacy.

The previous column sketched some of the rules that influence the bilateral dance between Canberra and Wellington. This column seeks to subvert Oz traditions about kicking Kiwis by seeing what New Zealand can do in defence and diplomacy that Australia might find difficult, if not impossible. To focus the question that way is to come immediately to the South Pacific.

The Kiwi claim that it can ‘do’ the South Pacific better than Oz produces a toxic response in Canberra similar in tone to that of Australian wine growers. On one big measure—decolonisation in the South Pacific—NZ was quicker and showed far more creativity and smarts than Australia. New Zealand was proactive in seeing Western Samoa to independence in 1962 (the first in the South Pacific); then Wellington came up with different solutions for Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, each of which maintained close links with New Zealand. Australia’s task in Papua New Guinea was far bigger, but the size and importance of the task merely emphasises how slow Australia was in realising the inevitable. Using that as the comparative framework, consider two recent policy achievements which support the New Zealand claim to some South Pacific sensibility.

The first is Bougainville. New Zealand could find a way to a peace agreement on that troubled island. Australia might pay for it, but New Zealand built it. The truce of 1997 and the permanent ceasefire of 1998 showed that New Zealand could do what Australia, as the old colonial master, could not. It was a wonderful achievement that saved many lives and resolved a major problem in Australia’s relations with PNG. Australia and PNG are ever in the debt of the NZ Foreign Minister, Don McKinnon, and his diplomats for that bit of Kiwi magic (although you’d never guess it from the history of the Bougainville Peace Process on the Australian Foreign Affairs website).

The fact that all the truce/peace monitors sent to Bougainville were unarmed was one notable bit of the Kiwi inspiration that achieved the deal. Given what might or might not happen in Bougainville this decade as the clock ticks towards the promised independence referendum, the NZ touch might be needed again. Bear in mind that the Kiwis only had the resources to command the first rotation of Bougainville truce monitors; after that the command task was handed to Australia. During that handover, the Australian Army was not at its gracious best, telling the departing NZ commander: ‘Piss off Kiwi, we’re in charge now’! That, by the way, is the polite version of the sendoff; the lack of grace does reflect the hard truth that while New Zealand achieved the settlement, it was Australia that paid for the process and provided the bulk of the people.

There’s a deeper truth there. If Kiwi magic is going to have a chance to work in the region, it has to be backed by Australian muscle. This is a policy two-step with many possible applications in the South Pacific. It needs the Kiwis to be sharp and willing (not always the case), but equally it requires Canberra to have the sense and self-restraint to let someone else get out in front occasionally. Australia doesn’t have so many policy options in the South Pacific that it can afford to ignore an independent asset that can be effective—even if the bill does have a way of ending up in Canberra.

New Zealand’s second great policy achievement was the instigation of Pacific worker schemes. New Zealand heeded South Pacific voices and delivered for the Islanders while Australia was dragging its feet and still inclined to say no.

New Zealand showed Australia the way to admit Pacific workers to do seasonal agriculture jobs. Australia would have taken much longer to react without the impetus of the New Zealand example. Given that the three year pilot scheme in Australia was as much failure as success, we probably need to take more notice of the Kiwi example, even though the Australian scheme is now permanent.

Sometimes, of course, the Kiwi touch doesn’t deliver. Every possible element of the ‘Pacific way’ was deployed in the NZ-sponsored talks at Government House in Wellington in 2006 between Fiji’s then Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, and Fiji’s military chief, Frank Bainimarama.

The Kiwis felt they had extracted a promise from Bainimarama, but the coup express was not to be derailed. Quicker than many in the region, New Zealand learnt not to trust a Bainimarama promise unless it was clearly in the Supremo’s self-interest to keep his word. New Zealand has been as hard-line as Australia in its approach to the Fiji military regime, and had just as many of its diplomats heaved from Suva. So that South Pacific magic has its limits.

Talking about things that New Zealand can do that Australia couldn’t even imagine leads to one of the biggest differences of all: New Zealand could walk away from the alliance with the United States. The earthquakes generated in New Zealand when the Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate collide between the North and South Islands have a diplomatic and defence equivalent in 1986, when ANZUS was shaken so hard it collapsed as a three-way alliance.

The aftershocks from the US expulsion of New Zealand still echo, yet a new structure is rising from the ruins. The next column will consider the prospect of life after death for ANZUS.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user NZ Defence Force.