Australia's weaker sibling

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and John Key.
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 response.

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 lie.

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 least.