Australian Outlook

In this section

Is Australia Humble Enough to Learn from New Zealand?

10 Mar 2021
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA
Jacinda Ardern addresses the nation. Source: daniel groeneweg

In Australia, there’s been commentary this month about the frosty state of relations with New Zealand. The thing I’m most surprised about is the surprise.

Though close in geography and culture, Australia and New Zealand are different countries that sometimes have different interests. Those old enough will remember a 90-year dispute over apples. But because of the close economic relationship and because Australians like New Zealand so much, the presumption is that they’ll always get on.

In fact, there is a lot to learn from taking Australia’s and New Zealand’s differences seriously rather than dismissing them.

Keeping Australia honest

First, listening to New Zealand’s complaints keeps Australia honest about whether its decisions are fair to its smaller neighbour. New Zealand is sensitive whenever it thinks Australia is ducking responsibility. For example, it raised concerns about a deportation policy where a New Zealand citizen who has lived in Australia since they were a toddler can be returned to New Zealand on character grounds. Similarly, where an Australian who has grown up and formed opinions in Australia commits a heinous terrorist attack in New Zealand, they would prefer that Australian taxpayers foot the bill for that person’s life sentence. Most recently, where Australia stripped citizenship from a dual national linked with Islamic State, this left her as New Zealand’s problem.

What Australia sees as putting its own interests first may look to New Zealand like it has abdicating its responsibilities. With an estimated 650,000 New Zealanders in Australia and 70,000 Australians in New Zealand, issues like these will continue to be an irritant in the relationship, particularly because, in reality, there is little New Zealand can do about it. Taking New Zealand’s concerns seriously forces Australia to consider whether it would be comfortable for others to emulate its behaviour.

Foreign policy techniques and choices

Second, Australia can learn that there may be other ways to do things in international affairs. For example, there may be lessons from the way that New Zealand has built deep relationships in the Pacific.

But indications are that Australia is not minded to take this opportunity, at least when it comes to the relationship with China. There was a storm of protest when New Zealand’s Minister for Trade Damien O’Connor contrasted Australia’s problems with China to New Zealand’s upgraded trade deal. He said that if Australia were to follow New Zealand and “show respect,” “a little more diplomacy,” and “be cautious with wording,” it could be in a similar situation. This followed Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta’s offer that New Zealand could help mediate, saying that “both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye.”

This got a reaction. Current and former Australian politicians spoke to the press, saying that New Zealand’s advice was not helpful. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison phoned New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and O’Connor was quickly reined in, contacting his Australian counterpart and issuing a statement that the “Australia-China relationship will always be a matter for China and Australia.”

It is a shame that this was closed down so quickly. Australia is not alone in having to manage a challenging relationship with China. Looking at how other countries are handling China – from South Korea to Singapore to New Zealand – gives Australia useful points of reference. But there is great resistance to this, presumably as it would undermine the idea that poor relations are inevitable, or all China’s fault.

According to James Laurenceson of the UTS Australia-China Relations Institute, there are things to be learned, even though Australia is reluctant to admit it:

“New Zealand is a proud liberal democracy. It is a “Five Eyes” partner. It cares about sovereignty. It has prevented Huawei from participating in its 5G network. It has criticised China on issues around human rights and international law. And yet, it has just struck an upgraded FTA whereas the last meeting Australia had with China toward the same objective was in November 2017.”

One lesson is that New Zealand appears to put diplomacy at the centre of foreign policy rather than privileging security and defence. The foreign minister describes the relationship between New Zealand and China in these terms:

“We seek a mature relationship where both parties have realistic expections of each other, as we look for opportunities to work together where we are able to.”

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.

A different foreign policy approach

More broadly, New Zealand offers an illustration of how a similar country can take a different foreign policy approach.

New Zealand has had more practice following an independent foreign policy since it was frozen out of the ANZUS alliance due to its ban on US nuclear ships. It relies on an assumption that it is not really a target for invasion which permeates its approach to the world. Australia should not characterise this as freeloading on Australia’s defence expenditure; New Zealand has a different strategic culture and threat perceptions.

In particular, New Zealand has brought biculturalism into its foreign policy in a way that Australia can only dream of. In her extraordinary inaugural speech to the diplomatic corps, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta talks about New Zealand’s identity being drawn from both its Indigenous heritage and Western institutions, linking this to the bicultural foreign policy values that New Zealand pursues internationally, such as co-partnering with the Pacific, supporting international institutions and rules, promoting free trade and open markets, global action on climate change, and seeing relationships as the building blocks of international cooperation.

There’s a lot there for Australia to reflect on.

Last week New Zealand received its best-ever placing in an international index of soft power, partly on the back of its well-publicised performance handling COVID-19 and the “Jacinda factor.”

Other countries think they have something to learn from New Zealand. Maybe Australia might too.

Melissa Conley Tyler is director of Diplomacy at Asialink at the University of Melbourne. She was national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs from 2006 to 2019. She is a lawyer and specialist in conflict resolution, including negotiation, mediation and peace education. She tweets at @MConleytyler.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.