When Jim Sutton was first Minister of Agriculture in 1990 his Australian counterpart assured him New Zealand apples would be in Australia by Christmas. Fifteen years on, we still don’t know which Christmas.
Australian apple growers are the sorts of primary producers who farm politicians in preference to battling the elements and the market. We may yet need the World Trade Organisation to sort them out.
That is not a good look in CER, the world’s “benchmark” free trade agreement, as the soon-to-depart Australian High Commissioner, Allan Hawke, will call it in his last major speech in Wellington this evening (while also noting Australian access concerns for seven tropical fruits, bananas, mushrooms and honey).
He will remind us of faint Australian unease, frequent New Zealand “paranoia” and two-way “petty point-scoring” — but also that Australians think far more positively about this country than any other. No two are as closely intertwined socially, institutionally and economically as we.
That will show us one Hawke, the much liked mate — a metaphor for one Australia we deal with.
Hawke is also the tough, tell-it-like-it is, former top defence bureaucrat — a metaphor for the other Australia, hard-nosed about its interests, the must-win country in sport.
We might profitably listen to both Hawkes, both Australias, this evening.
And if we do we will realise the trans-Tasman edifice is cast in plaster, not bronze. The relationship, Hawke said in early 2004, is “finely poised on a fulcrum”.
Apples are not the fulcrum. New Zealand apples will eventually be in Australian pies, even if not for some years yet.
Even defence is not the fulcrum. While the commentariat and many in Canberra still fume about “free-loading”, there are now commentators of weight and politicians who do point out how much this country does round the world. And Hawke will note this evening the 10-year defence spending boost tabled earlier this year.
The economic relationship gets us closer to the fulcrum. And there the issue is the single economic market (SEM) in which, ideally, doing business will be the same in both places.
There is progress, on regulatory cooperation, accounting standards, mutual recognition of qualifications and standards and, most recently, rules of origin which qualify goods or not for free trade — and, thanks to the annual leadership forum talks Hawke helped set up, Kiwis now go through the same immigration channel as Aussies at their airports.
But asymmetry rules. Progress is grindingly slow and largely reflects Australia’s priorities. Bigger brother calls the shots and many Australians think we are too precious about our “sovereignty” and can’t see why we don’t federate or at least adopt their currency.
But only a fifth of our trade is with Australia and applying Australia’s rules here unalloyed might make us less competitive elsewhere. That is a significant factor in harmonising bank regulation, which Australian Treasurer Peter Costello is pushing hard, even saying he will put his trade negotiating energies elsewhere if we don’t sort out a deal on banks.
Nevertheless, Australia is very important to our economy and the right SEM would be very valuable. So we would profit from calculating how much we are prepared to give to get SEM and that needs to be national calculation, not just a Beehive one.
Moreover, the next High Commissioner should not be able to say, as Hawke will tonight, that there is “elite business opinion” here which sees every Australian move as a cunning ploy to do us over or take us over, that at the first leadership forum we were into foreplay not the real deal, that we “bank and underscore the positives and overstate and hype the differences and difficulties”.
Which takes us to the “fulcrum”.
One dimension is personal.
Hawke will this evening canvass our “often fraught” history. Until John Howard prime ministers were more often than not on poor terms. Howard’s predecessor, Paul Keating, “held strong adverse views” about this country.
Howard set out to build good personal relationships with Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. And he has. He and Clark meet annually, initially at his request, the only annual date in his diary, Hawke says.
And Costello and Michael Cullen get on and so do Alexander Downer and Phil Goff and so on down the list — a “golden era”, Hawke calls it, and says commentators often overlook the importance of this “dynamic”.
What happens after Howard? The next cohort of politicians does not share Howard’s sentiment. The relationship may be at risk, Hawke will say.
Moreover, and this is the fulcrum’s second dimension, our demographics and strategic and trade priorities are diverging.
Put those two dimensions together. From here on SEM, which Hawke will say this evening is “there for the taking”, will likely get harder, not easier. So might dealing with other issues.
Which is the essence of Hawke-the-hard-man’s message this evening. And Hawke-the-mate’s.