Our voice in Canberra: Helen Clark’s mission

Very soon after they were elected Prime Ministers within a week of each other in 1972, Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam made contact. That marked a new era in trans-Tasman relations after decades of distance.

Malcolm Fraser and Sir Robert Muldoon, who followed those Labour giants, disliked each other but practised mutual toleration in the interests of a by-then necessary neighbourliness. The same went for David Lange and Bob Hawke.

Irishmen Jim Bolger and Paul Keating got on well personally, even though Mr Keating disliked New Zealand. Jenny Shipley and John Howard positively clicked.

Next week Helen Clark will have dinner and brief talks with Mr Howard in Canberra, followed by a fraternal meeting with second-term rightwing Labor New South Wales Premier Bob Carr – but not with federal Labor leader Kim Beazley.

Ms Clark, making a fetish of fiscal frugality, intends few trips offshore. But Australia is an unavoidable exception – our most important external relationship, socially, culturally, in sport, economically and strategically. She must get on with the Australian Prime Minister, whatever her ideological differences with the head of a conservative coalition.

But, then, given that the centre here is to the right of the centre there, the ideological distance between Ms Clark, the mildly left-of-centre centrist, and Mr Howard, the mildly right-of-centre centrist, is little, if any, greater than between Ms Clark and Mr Beazley, who leads a largely unreconstructed Labor party Labour notables here see as old-fashioned left.

In any case the Prime Ministers are unlikely to get deeply into detail. This is more a getting-to-know-you show of goodwill than the sort of bargaining mates Shipley and Howard got down to with their joint prime ministerial taskforce.

There are, nevertheless, some social welfare issues outstanding from that taskforce, some tax and business law issues and some trade issues, notably Asean and New Zealand’s initiatives for free trade agreements with Singapore and involving Chile and the United States.

And there are the F16s. The media will make a meal of Ms Clark’s determination on an army-based, mainly peace-patrolling defence force, into which jet fighters, unused in combat for decades, do not fit. She dismisses as very close to Defence Force thinking Centre for Strategic Studies director David Dickens’ arguments that strike aircraft are needed to cover army operations.

On this point Mr Beazley, the hawkish Defence Minister of the 1980s through New Zealand’s nuclear breach with the United States, cannot offer Ms Clark fraternal Labour comfort.

Defence is in many Australian official eyes the most important dimension of the relationship. Doug Anthony, the Australian Trade Minister who in 1979-83 prodded New Zealand into CER, the free trade agreement, was clear in his purpose: it was to secure Australia’s eastern flank economically and thus strategically.

Conversely, when Sir Geoffrey Palmer bought into the Anzac frigate project in 1989, it was for trade reasons – a voice in Canberra that could not be ignored – not for purely defence reasons.

Mr Howard will reiterate Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s line to Phil Goff that he did not care particularly whether we buy F16s or not. But Mr Howard and Mr Downer do care that New Zealand does not cut even further defence spending Australian politicians for a decade have thought below a credible minimum.

Ms Clark will restate that cancelling the F16s is just reprioritising expenditure: army first. But if she spends over $100 million ending the contract and gives away a comparable or possibly larger sum in a lost sale of the Skyhawks which will be unsaleable when decommissioned in 2007, that is a lot of money which will be buying nothing.

From the Australian end of the telescope, any such forfeiture would diminish defence spending if not matched by an equal purchase.

Mr Howard will be too polite to say that, even privately. But Mr Keating didn’t say much about defence cuts in the early 1990s – and felt free in 1995 to cancel by fax the agreement on a single air market.

Ms Clark’s mission next week is not just prawns and shiraz. It is about our voice in Canberra.