Clearing the air on the Tasman link

There is nothing like the alpine winter air to purify the spirit and clear the mind. On holiday far from the treacherous avalanche terrain of Wellington politics, the Prime Minister can refine priorities.

One is clear: her government gives the environment priority over the economy. Sandra Lee’s Reefton mining ban is on message.

But how should the government decide Air New Zealand’s future?

This goes to the heart of the trans-Tasman relationship. Qantas, scared stiff of Singapore Airlines’ commercial power, argues regional consolidation, a natural pitch in Australia which can’t see why New Zealand isn’t part of the federation. And John Howard needs re-election.

But Helen Clark won’t be able to redeem political airpoints bestowed by Howard if Kim Beazley is Prime Minister in December. And in any case her conduct in office has accentuated the drift apart identified by many who have this federal centenary year been examining Tasman links.

No sentimental attachment, for example, restrained Clark from trading off citizenship rights against welfare payments under pressure from Howard.

Yes, New Zealand needs the partnership and as smaller partner must make the running and most of the concessions. Especially, right now, Clark needs a favour: to be in any Australia-United States free trade deal.

And, yes, the majority cultures in each country are the closest of any two countries, the economies and societies are deeply entwined and we share growing dependency on Asia.

But in truth for at least 65 years and arguably for more than 100 the two countries have seen the world through very different periscopes. Among the growing body of literature that makes the point either overtly or by implication is journalist Paul Kelly’s account, in his book on the Australian federal century, of strategic preoccupations that are markedly different from those we recognise from this country’s history.

The point was made with persuasive elegance at the annual Otago University foreign policy conference in July by Hugh White, Australia’s Deputy Secretary of Defence who is about to head a think tank.

White’s revisionist history, greatly simplified, is that from the 1930s on Australia’s strategic focus has been on threats from Asia, while New Zealand, a continent away from Asia, has discounted those threats and put more focus on multilateral initiatives, such as the United Nations.

New Zealand has little sense of strategic vulnerability but is anxious about its economic viability. Australia is the other way round. “Same bed, different nightmares,” was how White put it.

For this reason of deep difference in perspective and anxiety, White reckons neither country has properly understood the other.

The “divergences” have been shrouded in Anzac myths which suggest a “congruence” of strategic view about the world. But actually, White reckons, with good evidence from the second world war and even the Cold War, including the genesis of the Anzus treaty, there never was a congruence. We have been deluding ourselves.

On this view the nuclear breach in the mid-1980s was not a divergence but a continuation of a markedly different strategic approach. Clark’s recent intransigence over fighters and frigates has simply crystallised that difference so that at long last it could not be mistaken. “It is time to take the hint,” White said.

Taking the hint will not diminish the anger in Canberra, denial of which by the government here is either disingenuous or self-deluding, certainly unwise and potentially damaging to New Zealand’s other interests there. Rob Huisken, of the Canberra Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told the Otago conference New Zealand is now commonly thought to be freeloading.

But taking the hint would encourage a focus on the positives (such as the hugely valued Timor cooperation) — but as two countries that are at least as much foreign as family.

With the myths stripped out, maybe the relationship can be reconstructed on principles of hard realism, for which Air New Zealand might provide a useful early test.

If not, the fact that defence has been, White said, a “negative” in the overall relationship since the 1980s, will eventually impinge on that real strategic concern of ours, our economy.