Rob Ayson’s dismay about the lacklustre summit of Australian and New Zealand Prime Minister’s last weekend is easily understandable. It produced so little of substance that one was left asking: why bother? What we got was an agreement to house a largish boat-load of asylum seekers and to fund a war memorial for Wellington, ‘… made of rugged Australian red sandstone’. On this side of the Tasman, your average daily Prime Ministerial media event often delivers more than that. It’s thin pickings for a relationship that’s allegedly so close—Prime Minister Gillard has used the word ‘family’ to describe it no less than 13 times in the last two years.
From the context of her comments, Gillard uses the term to imply a sense closeness and comfort in the relationship, but the family analogy is in fact the enemy of progress in trans-Tasman cooperation. Far from looking to build substance in a modern relationship, the leaders of both countries wallow in their comfort zones, with neither pressing nor being pressed to deliver more. That warm-slipper reality suits relationship managers in both countries; the status quo is undisturbed and expectations stay low.
That might well be an acceptable way to manage the relationship if it were the case that our strategic outlook was mostly positive. But there are sufficient challenges in prospect to curl the toes of even the snuggest Ugg-boot wearer—and challenges of a type that Australia and New Zealand should jointly think through.
High on my list of ANZAC challenges is the future stability of Bougainville. A conflict on the island in the late 1980s and 1990s lead to the deaths of, by some estimates, 15,000 people. (DFAT’s primer on the peace process acknowledges thousands of deaths without being more precise). Australia and New Zealand were involved in a costly Peace Monitoring Mission at the end of the 1990s until a largely New Zealand-brokered peace arrangement brought stability to the Province in return for greater political autonomy and the breathing space offered by delaying the final political settlement. Bougainville now has the opportunity to vote in a referendum on self-determination at some point between 2015 and 2020. The challenge for Australia and New Zealand is to make sure a move to a referendum happens as peacefully as possible after a process of disarming groups on the island, with all sides prepared to accept its results whatever they may be. That said, there are those in Port Moresby and those on Bougainville who probably have significantly differing expectations about what the referendum might deliver.
The potential for Bougainville to slide back into instability or serious violence is quite high. Should that happen, only Australia and New Zealand have the interest and capability to respond. If ever there was a case for a heavy joint pre-investment designed to prevent a conflict, this is it. As our work together on Bougainville in the late 1990s showed, both countries bring particular strengths to bear that the other can’t so easily provide.
Second, the South Pacific more generally presents an increasingly unpromising outlook for stability—not for major conventional war as discussed (and dismissed) in the National Security Strategy, but rather for the chronic decay of governance in the region and the risks of community violence and instability of a type we have seen in Tonga, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the region. One lesson the ANZAC partners must take from the many stabilisation operations of the last 15 years is that the cost of such missions is high. We can wait for the crises to break or work together to shift the regional paradigm onto a more constructive path. While Australia and New Zealand have become skilled in the elegant management of regional decline, there’s little apparent impetus to share a more concerted effort to address the problem.
My third item on a more active trans-Tasman agenda would be the future of regional maritime surveillance and policing. Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat program has provided the bulk of regional capabilities to perform a wide variety of tasks, from fisheries protection to counter drug operations. After several decades of use the patrol boats are nearing the end of their effective lives. Yet a candid assessment of the program is that the capabilities of the island states are very limited indeed and declining. There’s no budget programmed to develop a new regional maritime capability, but in its absence the capacity of the island states to maintain even a minimal sovereignty capability will disappear. Step forward Australia and New Zealand, like it or not—and it’ll mostly likely be ‘not’—it’s only our two countries that have the strategic need and capacity to solve this dilemma. We need some creative trans-Tasman thinking to come forward with a cost-effective solution or else face up to our own Navies and Air Forces taking on an even wider role.
Lastly, the dilemma of maintaining an active Australian and New Zealand interest in Antarctica deserve a blog post of its own, and this should also be on the agenda for some pre-emptive thinking. Both countries face a serious near-term challenge of being able to maintain a scientific presence on Antarctica supported by aircraft and ice-strengthened ships. Global strategic interest in Antarctica is rapidly increasing and for Canberra and Wellington the challenge is clear: if you don’t have the wherewithal to get down there, you might as well pack up the research stations.
There is, in short, an important, indeed vital, agenda for the future of trans-Tasman cooperation. It’s time to shed the family tag, get out of the Ugg boots and act like the relationship really is important. Just do it!
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Julia Gillard.