Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (foreground, third
from left) and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key (beside
her) meet and greet people in Arrowtown during a break from
official talks on Saturday. Photo by Olivia Caldwell.
As political summits go, the one between cobbers and
mates in Queenstown at the weekend was one of the better ones,
and not just because of the beautiful setting and weather.
The outcome of such summits are sometimes turgid communiques
with nuanced changes in position on areas of joint concern
that no-one but the highly trained diplomat can interpret.
This time, diplomats were put to better use. It was a action
time, not just a talkfest.
The outcome was still carefully choreographed in advance of
the actual bilateral meeting between Prime Minister John Key
and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and their teams,
which lasted only two hours on Saturday morning.
There were two significant announcements - moves to lower
data roaming rates and New Zealand to take 150 refugees from
Australia, and agreements that work will begin on three new
projects: collecting each other's student loan debt; the
building of an Australian monument at the National War
Memorial in Wellington; and closer co-operation on fighting
Whether the results were good for New Zealand is another
matter. No consumer would argue with the move to get data
roaming rates down - do it yourself or it will be done to
you, telcos in both New Zealand and Australia have been told.
The refugee move, on the other hand, has provoked a backlash
on both sides of the Tasman. Officially, the move means New
Zealand will take 150 people a year approved as genuine
refugees in Australia's offshore processing bases in Nauru
and Papua New Guinea.
In reality, New Zealand has agreed to take 150 boat people
every year who land in Australia - or are picked up from
distressed boats headed towards Australia - and are approved.
Many questions remain unanswered: what's in it for New
Zealand? What's in it for Australia? What's in it for boat
people? And why now?New Zealand did Australia a favour in
2001 by accepting 131 refugees from Tampa, and since then 250
relatives of theirs have settled in New Zealand.
But the 150 a year is an entrenched policy, not a one-off
response to a special event. On the same day that New Zealand
agreed to share Australia's boat people problem, Australia
agreed to look at ways of collecting $600 million in student
debt from Kiwis in Australia.
No-one will come out and say that this was a mutual
back-scratching exercise but Australia has been pressing New
Zealand for several years to help with boat people and New
Zealand has been pressing Australia to help collect debt.
Suddenly, there's action on both prickly problems and that's
not likely to be a coincidence.
Mr Key puts his goodwill gesture down to several factors:
recognising the intelligence New Zealand gets from Australia
on asylum seekers; and a recognition that some boat people
picked up in Australian waters were on their way to New
Liberals who have sympathy for asylum seekers do not like it
because of the offshore processing centres in relatively
grotty places, Nauru and Papua New Guinea. United Future
leader Peter Dunne tweeted ''We should take the 150 we want,
not the 150 Australia will not have.''
Ms Gillard gets a win of sorts, albeit just a symbolic one.
By Audrey Young.