Kiwi and kangaroo
18 Feb 2013|

Kiwi and kangaroo

The Australian relationship with New Zealand is kindred, yet Kiwi.

The kindred yet Kiwi line expresses the reality that the kiss and the kick are the two twinned elements of a deeply intertwined history. These are two countries so close that even in moments of embrace, a bit of elbowing and toe-stepping is inevitable. This is a good thing. Happy is the international relationship that can take a bit of bruising, where the first response is often to make a joke about the other side.

To give you a view of how this works, consider the annual summit between the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand that took place in the Kiwi city of Queenstown. High policy, indeed.

Yet this summit prompted one of the smartest Kiwis I know, the eminent strategist Robert Ayson to pen a tongue-in-cheek column for The Strategist saying that the two leaders achieved so little that perhaps they should agree not to do another bilateral summit until they actually had something important to talk about. As Robert knows, any Kiwi leader who said he or she didn’t really need to leave Middle Earth to talk to the denizens of the West Island would court deep political trouble (Translation: this is a NZ-makes-Lord-of-the-Rings-movies jest).

Robert’s levity prompted a matching piece from Peter Jennings who also thinks we need a bit more policy kick and not as much kissing:

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.

The Jennings and Ayson perspectives share some understandings about the complex interactions between Australia and New Zealand over more than 200 years that allow Gillard to talk easily about ‘family’; a positive note that prompts the thought that family gatherings can also produce spectacular arguments.

In this, the first in a series of columns on the kindred-but-Kiwi dynamic, let’s label some of the assumptions and rules that drive the constant dance between Canberra and Wellington, to try to offer some nuance beyond mere kiss and kick.

Start with Moore’s Law, as defined by the Kiwi politician Mike Moore in a speech he gave 15 years ago:  ‘The Australians are our best friends, whether we like them or not.’

Moore’s Law was reaffirmed in New Zealand’s most recent Defence White Paper:

Australia is our principal defence and security partner. We have no better friend and no closer ally.’ This truth is matched by the longstanding Australian acknowledgement that NZ is our only natural ally.

That’s it then—argument clear, case made, game over. Well, no, of course not.

There’s an equal and opposite rule that has to be weighed against Moore’s law. This is the Root-a-Roo Rule, named in honour of a delightful little figurine proudly displayed by a one-time New Zealand ambassador. The small statue had at the front a kangaroo with an extremely surprised look on its face, and standing behind a very happy kiwi, rogering away.

Let’s render the Root-a-Roo Rule more politely as the Kiwi Commandment. The central sentiment is captured in that still popular T-shirt motto: I barrack for New Zealand and anyone else playing against Australia.

There are a lot of versions of how this plays out on the Australian side. In his Cabinet Diary memoirs, Neal Blewett records the Labor Cabinet in 1992 venting ‘anti New Zealand rhetoric’ over issues from aviation policy to telecommunications to shipping, as they discussed Closer Economic Relations.

Blewett describes Kim Beazley, consumed by a Kiwi-phobia, thundering that despite all their brave talk, what the New Zealanders want is for Australia to be ‘the patsy for them and do their dirty work’. Gareth Evans fought back, in his own inimitable way, saying Beazley was just ‘a bully of pissant little countries’. Trust Gareth to offer some backing while also handing out a  backhander.

Blewett was not above a bit of pissant stomping himself. A month later, he records giving a burst to the Kiwi Trade Minister and New Zealand High Commissioner about ‘the growing sense that New Zealanders wanted all the advantages of being an Australian State without any of the obligations.’

About a century late, Blewett had stumbled on the eternal truth of the Kiwi Commandment – to integrate as deeply and profitably as possible with Oz while hanging on  to the maximum possible independence and every possible symbol of sovereignty. It is a fine balancing act and despite the strains, the Kiwis have performed remarkably well at it. The problem for New Zealand is that the task is unremitting because Australia exerts almost a gravitational effect.

The positive version of all this is expressed by the veteran diplomat and formed Defence Secretary, Ric Smith, who lists as one of his ten rules of Australian diplomacy: Always listen to the Kiwis—they watch us closer than anybody else, and know us nearly as well as we know ourselves.  The negative side of the same rule was expressed more than 30 years ago by one of Australia’s great diplomatic mandarins, Keith Waller: ‘The New Zealand Government has traditionally wanted to know all that Australia knows, although they have not always been equally frank in telling Canberra what they propose to do.’

Versions of the Waller Wail still echo around the Oz polity. Family politics are always fraught, and the view of this relationship as both kindred and Kiwi draws on a long history.

The second of this series will widen the lens to see Australia and New Zealand together in the South Pacific—and argue that there some things the Kiwis can do that Oz could not.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user JudithK.