When the show is the substance

Julia Gillard drops in tomorrow for two days. It will be much more show than substance but there is substance in the show.

The show will centre on Prime Minister Gillard’s speech to Parliament, a first for a foreign notable, though Australia’s Parliament once hosted the United States and Chinese Presidents in close succession. MPs will experience first-hand Gillard’s grating heavy Oz-speak accent.

This show is designed to impress on Gillard the inescapable central importance of Australia to New Zealand. Australia looks north-east, to its paramount ally, the United States, and north to its voracious east Asian customers and only then looks east to here. New Zealand deals independently with the rest of the world but must first deal with Australia. That is because New Zealand is in effect part of Australasia economically, socially and in security matters.

Why does the relationship’s importance to New Zealand have to be impressed on Gillard? Because, unlike Kevin Rudd whom she knifed last June, she has come late to international and trans-Tasman affairs.

Rudd, for all his faults, knew this country and saw the relationship as strategic, because of heavy Australian business stake here and because in certain ways New Zealand could help bulk up Australia in the Asian region and could help keep the peace in the South Pacific. Rudd set up an eight-a-side “joint cabinet” meeting at the time of the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum meeting in Sydney in August 2009.

Gillard, apart from dropping in to the leadership forum in Wellington in 2008, has not focused on the relationship. Her portfolios as deputy were domestic, notably education and labour.

That is relevant: Gillard brings grist to John Key’s mill. Allegedly of the “left” in her Labor party, she has pushed pay for performance for teachers and other reforms, over union objections. She will visit a school in Auckland. Some local political capital might be made as the government inches towards similar changes here.

The first Rudd-Key meeting in February 2009 accelerated previously glacial progress towards simplified trans-Tasman air travel, now operative in the “smart-gate” electronic entry at airports.

More important, Rudd raised oversight of the single economic market (SEM) process to his department, thus reducing Canberra bureaucrats’ scope to pigeonhole it. Simon Power, this side’s SEM minister, says he gets a productive response to issues he raises. He has made SEM his top priority in the commerce portfolio along with regulating the finance sectors and financial advisers.

Gillard and Key — and the select group of ministers meeting over dinner tomorrow evening — are not expected, at least according to background briefings, to move any SEM mountains. Mostly SEM goes on under the radar, with occasional announcements and legislation.

The one concrete SEM item on Gillard’s programme is to sign the investment agreement Key and Rudd were to have signed when Rudd visited last June, except he suddenly wasn’t Prime Minister and didn’t come.

Under that agreement, investments into each country by the other under a certain size ($477 million in New Zealand’s case) will not be subject to official scrutiny. Australia resisted free investment in the 1990s and Michael Cullen didn’t want it in the 2000s. Key and Rudd cut through.

There is also, according to briefings, an issue of mobile phone roaming charges. And, associated with SEM though not strictly part of it, will be cooperation in science, a matter that has risen on New Zealand’s agenda since Sir Peter Gluckman became Key’s chief scientific adviser.

But all this falls far short of former Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean’s call for a “common border” in a speech at an Australian High Commission function on January 28. This is fanciful for now: security-obsessed Australia cannot emulate New Zealand’s wide range of visa-free agreements with countries for tourism and New Zealand could not buy into Australia’s protective tariffs on a range of industries.

So to international affairs. Defence Ministers Stephen Smith and Wayne Mapp downgraded Australia’s push for a joint “rapid response force” along Anglo-French lines to one focused on natural disaster “contingencies” in the South Pacific when they met on February 10.

New Zealand has resisted melding with the Australians in Afghanistan. Key and Gillard will discuss the “transition” to Afghan control there. They will also perforce discuss the Middle East political earthquake in Egypt, a contingency no western government seems seriously to have imagined or planned for. And there is, to use the officialese, the “evolving architecture” in Asia as economic and political power re-weights across the Pacific. Potentially part of that new architecture is the putative trans-Pacific partnership free trade area.

It looks like a full agenda. But it is more show than substance. Still, there are times when the show is the substance. This week is one of those.