How Australia Day matters to us here

Friday is Australia Day. Why bother about that? Because Australia is part of us and what Australia does has great importance for us.

Australia is part of our history and culture. British interests were administered from New South Wales before the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand was at the federation talks. We share a great deal in language, institutions and British heritage. We share people. We down tools with Australians to watch the Melbourne Cup, as if it was ours (and it often is).

Australia and New Zealand have often fought together against others. Though we have also sometimes disagreed on how and whom to fight, most of us would see an attack on Australia as an attack on this country. We have joint interests in the stability of our neighbourhood in the South Pacific and south-east Asia.

The Australian economy is an extension of the New Zealand economy and vice-versa. We have a vested interest in Australia doing well because then we do better.

Australia is, as Prime Minister after Prime Minister intones, this country’s most important foreign relationship. But we are also so much “family” that “foreign” will not by itself describe the connection.

Australia is big in our lives as no other country is.

So Australia Day is also our day. We need not ascribe musical or lyrical merit to Waltzing Matilda. Nor need we wear flaglike shirts and hats and face paint as the couple on the official Australia Day website home page do. But we can vicariously take heart from Australians’ self-assurance reflected in the website.

And then we can be modestly different.

Iraq is a case in point. John Howard roared into Iraq with George Bush’s neoconservatives and shares responsibility for the disaster they have wrought — for the United States, the Middle East and the world — by their pursuit of a blinkered version of United States’ interests with blinkered stratagems.

Jim Anderton was right to liken it to Vietnam, which drained Americans’ confidence and turned them inwards. Bush’s wreckage has weakened the United States’ capability for good in the world, much as the Vietnam quagmire did.

Of course, there are differences between Iraq and Vietnam and Winston Peters pounced on them. But there is also a dismal parallel which is deeply worrying for those who think, as most New Zealanders instinctively do, that a strong and sensible United States is vital to global stability and balance.

Howard is complicit in the Iraq fiasco. Helen Clark is not. Voters would long ago have roasted her if she was. This, too, bears remembering on Australia Day.

So Australia Day is not only our day but also not our day.

It is a day to celebrate the immense fortune our big next-door “family” enjoys and its value to us. But it is also a day to remember that our big next-door “foreigner” is at times a discomfort.

Hence Peters’ Vietnam outburst. Even if, according to substrate rumblings, Australia’s foreign affairs grandees do not (yet) rate him, Peters has clearly grasped Australia’s critical importance. His growls at Anderton needed to be the official Wellington word heard in Canberra.

Likewise Peters’ about-face on the two countries’ joint therapeutics agency.

His party had backed small local producers and retailers of complementary medicines and diet supplements whose products will be more intrusively and expensively policed, in some cases to the extent of putting them out of business.

Annette King’s compromise bill subsidises their costs of complying with the new regime, which reflects Australia’s predilection for prescriptive regulation — a predilection which periodically causes tension because New Zealand generally prefers lighter mechanisms (as in the rejection in 2005 of a joint banking and finance industry regime similar to Australia’s).

But, whatever the therapeutics regime’s rights or wrongs, Canberra has made it clear to Peters that there is far more at stake than the agency alone. (In fact, for those selling into Australia and for the multinational pharmaceutical companies, it will reduce total regulatory costs.)

What is at stake is goodwill. There is much to gain for New Zealand and significant gains for Australia in pooling scientific and technical expertise in these sorts of fields. At the peak governance level on the therapeutics agency each country has one voice, a large Australian concession. Rejecting the agency would discourage Australia from committing the bureaucratic time to similar future joint agencies.

More important, the hard word in Canberra is that it would potentially make it harder to get traction on other elements of the putative single economic market. It would make us more “foreign” in Canberra on matters in which we need to be “family”.

Understanding Australia is, correctly, top of John Key’s foreign policy swotting agenda. His first big exam in Canberra will be whether he swings National behind King’s bill at the second reading.

Something to ponder over the Australian bubbly on Friday.