An Anzac challenge for Peters

It’s Anzac month, time to honour the war dead and bother about Australia.

So Winston Peters will drop in on the fourth Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum in Sydney on the Sunday and Monday of Anzac week and head off on the Tuesday to Gallipoli for Anzac Day.

Peters has yet to impress Australian hard-heads. After his annual talks with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on 26 February there was some rolling of eyes at his handling of one of the most important men in the government of this country’s most important foreign partner.

Then he fell down a media hole at the joint press conference by opining on the “total chaos” that would result if American-led (including Australian) troops were suddenly pulled from Iraq. Sixteen months into the job — which he had craved since 1998 and for which therefore we might have expected him to have prepared himself — Peters had not grasped that a Foreign Minister’s words in public are always his government’s and his country’s words.

But, then, does Peters have a full and detailed grasp of the complexities which infest international affairs and thus bedevil foreign policy, as an effective Foreign Minister (Phil Goff, for example) must? Insiders say not.

Peters is good for striking up camaraderie with counterparts (including the United States’ Condoleeza Rice) but not for the hard yakker, as an Australian might say.

Of course, others do the hard trans-Tasman yakker. Helen Clark and John Howard meet formally once a year and often at other forums. Michael Cullen and Peter Costello do, too; they oversee the “single economic market” (SEM). Goff does defence and trade. In individual portfolio areas ministers attend the Australian Commonwealth-state ministerial councils.

Most trans-Tasman ministerial business in some way touches on the elusive SEM. That is because New Zealand is now economically a state of Australasia in all but currency, tax and legal detail. It is a middling state, lacking Queensland’s and Western Australia’s resource riches but also not joining New South Wales in near-recession last year.

Economic statehood requires that businesses here are not disadvantaged trading in other states.

That requires as thin a border as possible. There are no borders inside Australia. Hence a lot of largely unseen work over the past few years on customs procedures and people movement controls.

Economic statehood requires tax systems that are not radically different over time converge. Hence a lot of work on this side to reduce differences that discourage free movement of executives and investment. Revenue Minister Peter Dunne explicitly talked recently of “an Australian focus in a number of our reforms” and a “goal of being competitive with Australia”.

Economic statehood requires closely aligned legal systems. Hence courts in each country increasingly help courts in the other country with arrests, evidence and enforcement of orders.

Economic statehood requires laws affecting business to be aligned, either by changing the laws (as when New Zealand brought its competition laws closer to Australia’s) or by formally accepting each other’s procedures (such as for setting up companies or issuing shares) so one bit of paper will do for both markets. Since 1998 the two countries have accepted each other’s product and services standards and almost all professional and skills qualifications.

Economic statehood requires regulatory authorities to cooperate, as the Securities and Commerce Commissions and the Reserve Bank increasingly do with their counterparts. Australian-born Securities Commission chair Jane Diplock has led the way.

Alternatively, when scientific expertise is needed, as for food safety and medicines regulation, economic statehood calls for supranational joint agencies, which can be difficult to negotiate and then, as with the proposed Trans-Tasman Therapeutic Products Authority, to get through the two Parliaments.

There is one other dimension to economic statehood: people-to-people and business-to-business dialogue.

That is the leadership forum’s role. It keeps an informed eye on SEM — progress is too slow, its working groups find each year — and on other dimensions of the relationship.

The forum is also intended to keep the NZ in Anzac across the Tasman by creating a constituency of senior non-government Australians who take New Zealand and the relationship seriously.

The forum is not there yet, in part because ministers on both sides have yet to take it really seriously.

At last year’s forum Peters looked nonplussed, the junior of the four New Zealand ministers present.

His job in Sydney this month is to impress the influential Australians at it. His track record is not encouraging.