Work to do for NZ to Rudd along with Oz

One thing won’t change: the stampede of New Zealanders across the Tasman to make a living. A wage in Australia under Kevin Rudd will stay around a third higher than one in New Zealand for a while yet at least.

That is one iron rule of the relationship with Australia for now. The resources boom, the larger critical mass of its major cities and the riches of its federal and state treasuries have showered wealth on Australians — and on New Zealanders who join them, as they are free to do in our common labour market.

Rudd is a self-proclaimed centrist. He does not see himself as “left” though he does see a role for the government in economic development. He rid his Labor party of some of the rougher unionists and his planned rollback of John Howard’s labour market deregulation does not go all the way.

So his government is unlikely to do much, if any, damage to Australia’s economic prospects — he might even be modestly positive, through his infrastructure, education and broadband interventions and slightly more conservative fiscal stance. On Friday the Fitch rating agency said it would keep its AAA rating of Australia through a change of government.

Another iron rule is that Australia is far bigger and has far bigger fish to fry to its north and north-east than these Pacific islands to its east. New Zealand must shout to be heard.

Will a Rudd government hear as a Howard Coalition government has? No one can be sure. Ministers here will have to work hard at it. And they know it is vital to the economy here that they do, given the depth and complexity of the linkages and meshes between the two economies and societies.

The Labor party’s official platform on foreign affairs dedicates just one paragraph to New Zealand. The tone is warm but foggy: “Labor will give high priority to the further development of Australia’s strong and mutually beneficial relationship with New Zealand, both in respect of bilateral economic and political ties and through cooperation in multilateral forums. We should jointly review existing mechanisms for cooperation and coordination and explore further opportunities for closer integration.”

The only other mention in the platform is as one country of four (with Canada, Japan and the United States) to be consulted on climate change. The defence policy commits a Rudd government only, in a lone paragraph, to “re-invigorate Australia’s defence relationship with New Zealand” and “encourage regular military exercises with New Zealand and … greater synergy between our two defence forces”.

Rudd’s campaign speech on national security policy offered this single aside: “If this country finds itself incapable of acting independently (or in partnership with our close friend and ally New Zealand whose efforts in the South Pacific in partnership with ourselves often goes unreported) then there is a long-term danger that the Island states will increasingly turn elsewhere.”

There was no mention of New Zealand in speeches by Rudd and trade spokesman Simon Crean on exports and trade, despite the real actual value to Australia of the CER free trade agreement and the single economic market process aimed at making doing business in the two countries seamless.

By contrast, special policy speeches were dedicated to the United States and Japan and several to aspects of the islands of the South Pacific. In his victory speech Rudd singled out “the great friend and ally, the United States” and no other country.

It amounts to a sort of benign insouciance of this country.

Two factors will determine how the government-to-government relationship with our necessary friend now goes.

One is that the two economies are deeply meshed, the two societies intertwined and related (including large numbers of Maori and Pacific islanders) and cooperation and engagement between the two countries’ governments and bureaucracies well established.

New Zealand needs little mention in election campaigns because it is embedded in business-as-usual policy. This is both good — we are in the tent — and bad — we are often taken for granted and/or overlooked.

The second factor is how the top people get on. This matters because of the single economic market process.

Before John Howard won in 1996, relations were mostly tepid, often cool with indifference and at times frozen by antipathy in Canberra. New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy added chill in 1985.

Howard injected warmth, with Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley and since 1999 Helen Clark. Clark and Howard are chalk and cheese but got on famously. Equally improbably, Treasurer Peter Costello and Michael Cullen hit it off. That revived progress on the single economic market — still uneven and jerky but now on Australian bureaucrats’ checklist.

Contrast the Paul Keating Labor ministry’s abrupt termination of a planned single air services market in 1994 (fixed by Howard) with the long patience over Annette King’s inability to raise a majority for the joint trans-Tasman therapeutics agency: Health Minister Tony Abbott was prepared midyear to bend yet one more time to incorporate an opt-in arrangement for New Zealand supplementary medicine makers.

Two factors drove Howard’s warming. One was sentiment, a pushing-70 conservative’s remembrance of empire and Anzac. More important was his strategic take: New Zealand is an ally in our no-longer-stable region and so he set aside the nuclear difference; and New Zealand is economically important to Australian business.

The therapeutics agency fits this strategic frame: Howard hoped a bi-national agency would be respected and its rulings adopted in south-east Asia, as an Australia-only agency would not.

Rudd by all accounts is most unsentimental: ruthlessly single-minded, a control freak and a main-chance bloke. An uncle and a cousin urged people to vote against him.

Veteran Melbourne Age political editor Michelle Grattan, who knows everybody in politics, wrote on Friday that, while other incoming Prime Ministers were well known, “it is still hard to draw, in one’s mind’s eye, anything but a crayon sketch of ‘Kevin Rudd PM’. If Rudd wins tomorrow, what follows will be something of an adventure.”

New Zealand ministers have the same puzzle. Phil Goff knows him a bit and but other ministers know him hardy at all. Clark has met him but will essentially have to build a relationship from scratch. Cullen has never spent time with shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan. And so on down the list with almost all the new team.

That suggests a risk the relationship could revert to pre-Howard coolness. To avert that — and to restart action on the single economic market and other trans-Tasman agendas — ministers here will need to be very proactive.

The good news is that Rudd show every sign of reaching the same strategic conclusion of Howard to keep relations warm and friendly.

Moreover, he seems well-disposed — or at least not ill-disposed. I remember a gathering in Australia three years ago which was discussing security matters at which Rudd, with no detectable motive and without prompting, detailed a list of New Zealand’s peacekeeping activities around the world. He was informed, accurate and approving.

On the world stage he will be slightly less alliance-bound and more a multilateralist (supporting United Nations and other multi-nation collective approaches) than Howard. He will be marginally more focused on Asia. In the South Pacific he will be less the village policeman than Howard and more the thoughtful neighbour.

And he is determined to be active on climate change and show a lead, just like Clark. He said on November 18 he will lead the Australian delegation to the Bali United Nations climate change conference next month which will begin discussing the process for developing a post-2012 international agreement.

That will make it easier for Clark to sell climate change here. But might it also chip a little off her standing in the world? Clark’s — New Zealand’s — foreign policy differentiations from Australia are noticed, especially in Asia, mostly to this country’s advantage. A smaller difference with Australia on such a big issue might make this tiny blip on the world radar even smaller.