Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and John Key.
The weekend's meeting in Queenstown between Australian
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her New Zealand counterpart,
John Key, underlined the big sibling, little sibling disparity
between the two nations.
And although at least one political reporter has described
the summit as a place of action rather than just talk, and
the official spin would have it that relationships were as
fine as the weather, a little scepticism is in order. What
was actually agreed to of real substance? What progress was
made that could not have been agreed to at the level of
co-operative senior officials, with subsequent announcements
by the politicians?
One matter of the moment, an issue highlighted in recent
months in New Zealand, was given short shrift by Ms Gillard.
New Zealanders in Australia, many of whom have paid
Australian taxes for many years, have been denied benefits as
well as student loans and tertiary education support for
their children. Become Australian citizens, that is if we
deem your skills are necessary, was in essence Ms Gillard's
Mr Key, for his part, knows we need Australia far more than
she needs us. He would also have been well aware that Ms
Gillard could hardly spend money on New Zealanders in a
difficult election year and with a difficult budget to
balance. This is an inequity that Mr Key felt he had to let
Ms Gillard did agree on moves to lower data roaming rates,
something in the direct interest of many of the one million
Australians who visit this country each year. This is a
logical step that regulators on both sides on the Tasman
should have acted on much sooner. It should not require a
summit to agree to policy to consider forcing
telecommunication companies to move faster in this direction.
Perhaps New Zealand should also be thankful Australia has
agreed to look at ways of collecting $600 million in student
debt from New Zealanders in Australia. But, in the first
place, ''looking at ways'' is different from action, and,
secondly, a scheme might be able to be devised that will not
bring significant fiscal or political costs to Australia. Any
''concession'' is, therefore, easy to make.
The most intriguing summit announcement was Mr Key's
agreement to take 150 refugees a year from Australia's stock
of boat people from Nauru or Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
This tally would come out of New Zealand's United Nations
Refugee Agency quota of 750 a year, so Mr Key can make a
gesture that will, in practical terms, amount to little. He
can give some legitimacy to Australia's use of offshore
processing centres as well as showing a willingness to share
one of Australia's headaches, even if, in essence, the offer
covers just a couple of boatloads.
There have been predictions that 30,000 further refugees will
this year venture as boat refugees, and Australia last year
increased its refugee intake commitment from 17,350 a year to
20,000. At the same time, it reopened the offshore centres
and said those there would not queue jump refugees in other
camps. Labor, so critical of the hardline of former prime
minister John Howard on boat people, found the reality of
Government meant that it, too, must have strong measures to
deter the flood.
In justifying the goodwill gesture, Mr Key mentioned sharing
immigration intelligence as well as potential for Australian
help should New Zealand be faced with having to process
boatloads of refugees, neither particularly strong arguments
given our geographic position. Mr Key, of course, was quickly
criticised from liberal and anti-government circles for
allegedly undermining the proper United Nations refugee
system. Most of mainstream New Zealand, however, is unlikely
to react negatively to another of his pragmatic calls.
CER (Closer Economic Relations), which this year celebrates
its 30th anniversary, has brought the transtasman neighbours
much closer together. But last weekend's summit, while
cordial and useful, saw little in the way of major advances.
And once again, among all the talk from both sides about
being like family, it was clear who the senior sibling was,
who therefore was, is and will be in the position to give the