Stronger together in an uncertain world

Fresh from free-trading the Pacific in Cairns, John Key will be back in Australia in a fortnight, this time to advance the trans-Tasman single economic market.

Three ministers, Simon Power, Tim Groser and David Carter will meet Australian counterparts Nick Sherry, Simon Crean and Tony Burke tomorrow to tick some boxes for “tangible outcomes” when Key meets Kevin Rudd on August 20.

We are getting closer to Australia — in policy, if not in wealth, in which the gap is widening. We are the poorest state of Australasia. Why not just federate and drink rich at same billabong?

The answer is: we’re different. (Though are we more different than Californians are from New Englanders and both are from Floridians? Apart from the varied white cultures, think about the proportions of Mexicans and blacks in those states.)

But we spend at lot of time in each other’s places. Australians come for cheap holidays. We get away from rain. (Two Australian academics project rainfall there to rise by 8.4 millimetres by 2099 as a result of global warming — but evaporation to rise by 11.2 millimetres. So the red wine grape crops will wither.)

Back in February Key hit on the decades-old idea that we should be able to walk off the plane in Cairns without going through immigration and customs checks — like going to Queenstown. In March he and Rudd told officials to fix that.

Travel control has been on and off the bilateral agenda for at least 40 years. One problem in recent years has been that we allow visa-free visits from many countries but security-obsessed Australia limits visa-free entry to New Zealanders.

Nevertheless, with electronic passports and improved security this side of the Tasman, something less unfriendly and time-consuming than the present arrangements, though not the equivalent of domestic travel, is said to be on the cards.

That will be a step on from letting New Zealanders go through the same channels as Australians, introduced after a push from the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum.

The forum is a grouping of businesspeople, officials, politicians and assorted others, who have met yearly since 2004 to build a trans-Tasman constituency and push closer relations and the single economic market (SEM). It is to meet in Sydney directly after the Rudd-Key meeting.

Rudd and Key are set to make other announcements to advance SEM, which is aimed at eventually making doing business in the other country the same as doing business at home. If their March statement of priorities and recent nods and winks are a guide, those announcements might centre on an updated investment protocol and some “regulatory harmonisation and alignment”.

Other items on that work programme include the rules of origin under which goods qualify for tariff-free trans-Tasman trade, a “comprehensive tax treaty”, an update of the food standards treaty, progress on the joint therapeutic goods authority which National blocked in 2007, and joint trade promotion in other countries.

One March item, mobility for pension funds, was agreed between Treasurers Wayne Swan and Bill English last month.

Ministry of Economic Development deputy secretary Liz MacPherson was earlier intricately involved in the negotiation within Australia of a common consumer law for all states. New Zealand has a memorandum of understanding on that law, including on enforcement and information sharing.

Power was in Australia this week advancing work on financial services, insolvency, criminal court cooperation, business reporting and securities law and cooperation between competition watchdogs. Legislation on the last item has been held up by ACT but is now set to advance.

It’s a big agenda. And it has a new momentum — so insiders say.

It is the third phase in the revival of “closer economic relations”. The first was John Howard’s decision to treat the relationship as strategic. The second came when Michael Cullen and Peter Costello got their Treasuries to work on SEM and push other departments.

Now, it is said, Key and Rudd have taken that to a new level. Rudd sees New Zealand not as a little brother to be humoured but as a collaborator in the Pacific, the repository of large Australian business investment and a significant destination for Australian exports. That is, he recognises the single economic market is not a one-way street.

He sent six ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, to last year’s leadership forum. This year’s forum draft programme features five ministers, including himself.

The tone has shifted. Officials have been told to produce results, not examine options, which in the past has given them (mainly in Canberra) scope to find reasons not to do things.

Whether that will turn out to be a magic pudding or one to be proved in the eating will need time. But for now the two new Prime Ministers are injecting energy into pushing us closer.

The vogue phrase is “stronger together” — in a wide, unpredictable world. It’s taken a while.