When big sister helps out

It is better to let big sister think she thought of something first. That way little sister get her way.

Qantas chair Margaret Jackson arrived for the Australia-New Zealand leadership forum bent on a mission to soup up CER into a common market with a common currency. She was going to stir the laggards on this side of the Tasman into action.

Ahem. Actually, the laggards have been on the other side. The more plugged-in Australians in Jackson’s team at the forum acknowledged that.

For a decade or so until Michael Cullen and Peter Costello decided to get some action, it was hard to get Australian business to take an interest and officials in Canberra filed trade ministers’ communiqu�s in the “good intentions” pigeonhole.

Well, not everything. There was progress on a joint food safety authority and mutual recognition of standards and qualifications. But movement was generally glacial or zero. There wasn’t enough in it for Australia — and no constituency there to prod politicians to prod bureaucrats.

Costello has now got his Treasury active on a big work programme which promises real results, mainly in the nuts-and-bolts of incremental improvement which, if carried through, over time will take us to a single market.

This will be by a mixture of joint agencies, joint activity by agencies on both sides of the Tasman, an extension of mutual recognition of standards, qualifications and regulations (such as company registration) and harmonisation of regulation, though not just adoption of Australia’s heavier (but now lightening) hand.

The foreign ministers undertook at the forum’s press conference to look again at border frictions, including maybe eventually passport-free travel.

All good stuff. But Jackson swept it all out of media view by talking up a common currency, which neither government is remotely ready to contemplate. That didn’t help.

But Jackson did help in this sense: she brought a team, with some top players, who want CER to develop and will argue for it. That is enormously valuable — and if the price New Zealand has to pay is to bite its tongue and let the Australians think they are pushing slowcoach New Zealanders, it is an easy price to pay.

* Colin James was a participant in the New Zealand team at the forum.