New Zealand’s long-standing alliance with Australia is considered one of the closest in the world, but recent events have resulted in a war of words – and an apparent hindering of the relationship.
National leader Judith Collins last week said she feared the relationship between the two countries was at its lowest point in decades.
So, does Australia even care about its relationship with New Zealand? While recent rhetoric suggests they don’t, leading international relations experts believe they do.
Stephen Hoadley, an associate professor in politics at the University of Auckland, agrees the relationship is at a low point – but not its lowest. He believes there’s still plenty of common ground.
“We just need to keep calm and carry on,” he told Newshub. “Good relations will continue despite the rhetoric and minor irritants.”
University of Otago politics professor Robert Patman thinks Australia does care about its relationship with New Zealand but notes its Government has a “hierarchical” view of the world.
“Their major concerns, at the moment, are both the United States and China – Australia’s always seen itself as closer to the United States than New Zealand has,” Prof Patman says.
“I think it’s not so much they don’t care – I think we just don’t appear on their radar screen as much as they appear on ours.”
A brief history of the trans-Tasman relationship
We’re arch-rivals on the rugby field and cricket pitch, but as then-NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff said in 2001, “the trans-Tasman relationship is the most extensive and important we have with any bilateral partner”.
New Zealand and Australian soldiers, or ANZACs, fought in both World Wars on behalf of the Crown – most significantly during the failed invasion of Gallipoli during World War I. Both sides of the Tasman have observed ANZAC Day since 1916, to remember the 87,000 lives lost – including about 8500 Australians and nearly 3000 New Zealanders.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) website describes New Zealand as “natural allies with a strong trans-Tasman sense of family”.
The relationship, which dates back to the early 1800s when New Zealand was governed by the colony of New South Wales, “the closest and most comprehensive of all our bilateral relationships”, Australia’s DFAT says.
While New Zealand declined to become a state of Australia 120 years ago, Australia’s DFAT says they and us continue solid political ties.
The continued relationship has allowed the likes of freedom of travel between the two countries – as per the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement that was brought about in the early ’70s, while the NZ-Australia Closer Economic Relations came into force in 1983 – eliminating all tariffs and quotas by 1990.
So what’s brought about the recent iciness?
Australia’s controversial ‘501’ immigration policy has been highlighted as one of many incidents causing friction between the two nations.
Earlier this month, Australia Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton labelled those deported to New Zealand as “trash”.
Hoadley says some of Australia’s rhetoric and policies can be “irritating”, while National Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee believes the language Australia is using shows the respect between the two countries is waning.
“We know those actions are more about Australia’s domestic politics than concern about its relationship with New Zealand,” Brownlee told Newshub.
Hoadley explains Australian leaders also may be envious of New Zealand’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ardern’s “empathetic” leadership.
Australian international relations expert Melissa Conley Tyler, who’s also examined the fallout, said New Zealand and Australia have had long-standing differences but noted Australia could learning something from NZ’s way of doing diplomacy.
“One lesson is that New Zealand appears to put diplomacy at the centre of foreign policy rather than privileging security and defence.
“Diplomacy starts from realism: accepting that you’re unlikely to be able to change the basic nature of other countries and trying to get the best for your country that you can.”
Are they more important to us than we are to them?
Prof Patman says while that may be the perception in Australia, he believes it’s an inaccurate one.
“Unfortunately, a lot of our politicians, at the moment, have compartmentalised views of the world where if they’re friends with [a] great power they can solve some of the problems facing them.”
He believes the relationship between the two countries is also more resilient than is being made out.
“I think the Prime Minister of our country [Ardern] has decided that Australia does need to be told quite frankly about things irritating us and I think that’s correct.
“We shouldn’t always assume that all Australians agree with [Australia Prime Minister] Scott Morrison, for example. There are indications that not all Australians agreed with a number of decisions their Government has made.
“Jacinda Ardern has quite a lot of support in Australia so when Jacinda Ardern criticises Australia on a range of things … I think we should take into account Jacinda Ardern’s got a good standing in Australia.
“I think the Government still looks to Australia as its closest partner and I don’t think anything has changed. I think what’s happened is instead of keeping quiet about things irritating us, we’ve decided to speak quite frankly about them and that’s good – I think Australia does need to know.”
Repairing the relationship
Hoadley says Australia needs to dial down its rhetoric and stop “dumping” criminals in New Zealand, while Brownlee has a similar view.
“There is an urgent need to get back to a more respectful relationship and dialogue with Australia, so the implications that their domestic decisions have in our country can be considered in a better way than the current dumping solution,” says Brownlee.
Prof Patman, meanwhile, believes the perception that New Zealand always must defer to Australia needs to end.
“The Australian worldview is slightly different to the New Zealand one. They seem to believe that the great powers call the shots internationally.
“I think, in a sense, small and middle powers – countries like New Zealand and Australia – should be cooperating much more to deal with problems that can’t be solved unilaterally.
“Countries like New Zealand and Australia should be stepping up to the plate and cooperating more rather than scoring points against each other.”