Thursday, February 17, 2011

The curious thing about Wellington and Canberra

Julia Gillard should be well pleased with her first prime ministerial visit to New Zealand. She appears to have charmed Parliament, the business sector and the media. Orstrylians may still be weighing her up, but we like her.

She said all the right things, even to the point of rewriting her precedent-setting speech to Parliament at the last minute to make sensitive reference to the New Zealand soldier killed in Afghanistan. Repeated references to the Anzac tradition, and to Australia and New Zealand as “family”, indicate that Gillard values the trans-Tasman relationship highly. They will have warmed the hearts of New Zealanders who have felt at times that Australia’s attention was focused elsewhere. The expressions of support from our bigger, more dynamic neighbour will be reassuring to a country that has been labelled the last bus-stop on the planet and sometimes frets about being vulnerable and isolated.

John Key should count Gillard’s visit as a triumph too. Not only do the two appear to have established a warm rapport, but Key will bank political points from the fact that Gillard wants to resume annual meetings. This reflects well on Key, since not all New Zealand prime ministers have been so favoured. In fact there have been long periods in the past when Australian prime ministers appeared to treat their New Zealand counterparts with indifference.

Which brings us to the curious thing about the relationship between Canberra and Wellington. Key, a centre-right politician, seems to get on well with Gillard, a centre-left politician. Helen Clark, a centre-left politician, was on the best of terms with John Howard, a centre-right politician.

Yet go back further, to times when the prime ministers of the two countries shared supposedly similar political leanings, and the relationship was anything but amiable. David Lange and Bob Hawke, both Labour leaders, made no effort to hide their mutual antipathy. No room was big enough for both of them.

In the 1970s, Malcolm Fraser and Robert Muldoon, though both leaders of conservative parties, had nothing in common – Fraser being a patrician, blue-blooded grazier from the western districts of Victoria and Muldoon a pugnacious middle-class accountant with a strong socialist streak. And even before that, I seem to recall tension between the blue-collar, self-educated Norman Kirk and the urbane (and sometimes arrogant) intellectual Gough Whitlam.

There’s the surefire formula for closer relations between the two countries. When Australia veers to the right, we should simply make a corresponding lurch to the left – or vice-versa.

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