Jacinda Ardern and former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. 'Smiles and pleasantries' can no longer patch over the countries' differences. Photo: Prime Minister's Office/Supplied

Opinion: After the Australian election, Jacinda Ardern said the relationship with Australia was our closest and most important. She was right to do so.

However, that relationship has waxed and waned over the years. This is despite our common heritage, the legendary Anzac spirit we pay ritualistic tribute to each Anzac Day, and the 1944 ‘Canberra Pact’ committing the two countries to regular consultation and working together on international matters, particularly in the Pacific.

New Zealand ministers participate in the regular meetings between Australian federal and state government ministers, but in effect as another Australian state rather than an equal international partner. The 1983 Closer Economic Relations agreement (which grew out of the 1967 New Zealand/Australia Free Trade Agreement) is generally considered to be far more important to New Zealand than to Australia.

While New Zealand governments have generally sought close links with Australia, Australian governments have been much more inclined to treat the relationship with a paternalistic lack of interest, bordering at times on neglect.

Curiously, the relationship has been at its most tense when governments of the same political hue are in office. The sour relationship between Sir Robert Muldoon and Malcom Fraser (summed up by Muldoon’s undiplomatic riposte that New Zealanders emigrating to Australia “raise the IQ of both countries”) is legendary, but not unique. Bob Hawke and David Lange had an equally awkward relationship in the 1980s.

Conversely, the relationship has been at its warmest when the two prime ministers come from different sides of the political fence. John Howard and Helen Clark worked well together, even though there were unresolved policy differences over New Zealanders’ rights to access welfare support in Australia. Likewise, the relationship between Sir John Key and Julia Gillard was close.

However, the situation has deteriorated in recent years, principally because of the Morrison government’s slavish adherence to its section 501 deportation policy, despite New Zealand’s equally determined but continually unsuccessful lobbying for change. The early signs are this is unlikely to change substantially under the new Albanese government, which will be an interesting test of the resolve of the two prime ministers.

Beyond that, Australia and New Zealand have increasingly been moving on different paths in international relations. Australia’s focus has always been on securing its borders from ‘illegal’ immigrants from South-East Asia, keen to flee crowded situations for the wider spaces and greater opportunities they see Australia offering. Australia has been happy to act as the United States’ regional “deputy sheriff”, and more willing to get involved in military alliances such as the recent AUKUS agreement with the US and Britain.

New Zealand has been more focused on the Pacific, understandably so, given many Pacific states were previously New Zealand dependencies. However, despite our quaint references to the “realm states”, the relationship has been teetering towards benign neglect in recent years. The Pacific Reset designed to reverse this, and promoted in the Government’s first term, has so far produced no significant outcomes.

China’s recent aggressive foreign policy initiatives in the Pacific bring the future nature of the New Zealand/Australia relationship and New Zealand’s role in the Pacific to a head. The early signs are not good for a positive outcome from New Zealand’s perspective. Already, two former New Zealand dependencies, Western Samoa and Niue, have reportedly signed up to China’s “Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision”. This follows on from the earlier security agreement reached between Vanuatu and China.

Significantly, it was Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, in office barely a week, who took the initiative in persuading Fiji not to share China’s development vision and to join the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Bizarrely, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta was silent on these latest developments, refusing all media requests for comment, and fuelling fresh suspicion New Zealand’s near-pathological fear of upsetting China now dominates every aspect of our foreign and economic policies.

By her inexplicable silence Mahuta in effect ceded New Zealand’s Pacific role to Australia and reduced this country to regional irrelevance. In the process, a potentially dangerous rivalry has been set up between China’s development vision and the United States’ planned regional economic framework. The last thing the Pacific needs is to become a superpower playground, while the major countries of the region, New Zealand and Australia, follow different courses.

Australia has long been suspicious New Zealand has been somewhat of a regional security freeloader, principally because of our anti-nuclear policy. Our apparent passivity in the face of China’s initiatives will reinforce that feeling. At the same time, the willingness of long-standing Pacific friends to embrace China’s proposals not only speaks volumes about the impact of our Pacific neglect, but also reinforces the exaggerated criticism during the pandemic that New Zealand risks turning into a hermit state.

None of this bodes well for the future relationship between Albanese and Ardern, even though they are from the same side of the political fence. The differences between the two countries are becoming too great and obvious to be patched over by smiles and pleasantries between the two leaders.

The 1944 Canberra Pact was a joint initiative of the Australian and New Zealand governments of the time, largely free of British or American influence. Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam tried briefly and unsuccessfully to resurrect its spirit in the early 1970s, but that ended with Kirk’s sudden death in 1974. Yet a joint approach by both countries to Pacific issues is needed more than ever now. A reinvigorated Canberra Pact and common approach to the challenges now facing the Indo-Pacific region would be an opportunity for the two countries to recharge their historical relationship.

Unfortunately, the compromises required on both sides of the Tasman to make this happen are significant, making it hard to see there will be much change to, or improvement in, New Zealand’s most important relationship soon.

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