It would seem the spirit of ANZAC goes only so far.
Though Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese talked up the military cooperation between the two countries at their joint press conference in Wellington yesterday, there are at the same time no signals from either Labour or National that they are willing to increase expenditure on defence.
Australia spends just over two per cent of its GDP on defence while New Zealand spends around 1.4 per cent — and National Leader Christopher Luxon yesterday said that National would not increase defence expenditure if the party became government.
“We will have other priorities on the other side of the election,” he said.
Luxon will be meeting US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken today, who may be a bit surprised to find a centre-right leader in New Zealand unwilling to up defence expenditure, particularly as the US continues to push countries in the region to increase security to counter potential Chinese expansion in the Pacific.
Speaking in Nuku’alofa yesterday, as quoted by Matangi Tonga, Blinken said, “I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that as China’s engagement in the region has grown, there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behaviour.”
It is that tension between China and the US which is reflected back into the Australia-New Zealand relationship because of Australia’s close alliance relationship with the US and New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy.
Despite that, “Albo” and “Chippy” yesterday demonstrated a warmth in the trans-Tasman relationship that we have not seen since Malcolm Turnbull and John Key squared off across the ditch.
There were certainly no signs of the tensions that existed between Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern, which was largely provoked by Australia’s refusal to ease the path for New Zealand migrants to become citizens and its “501s” policy of deporting New Zealand-born Australians convicted of criminal offences.
That policy is still in place, but the path to citizenship has been eased by the Australian Labor government, and Albanese said yesterday that already 10,000 New Zealanders living in Australia have applied for citizenship.
He said the easing was a product of the special bond that existed between the two countries.
“This is a change that was long overdue; it was the right thing to do, and it was a fair thing to do,” he said.
And he applied that “bond” to the security sphere as well.
“Australia and New Zealand stand together as partners who share a common vision for peace, security and prosperity in our region,” he said.
“And we stand together to uphold the rules-based international system.
Prime Minister Hipkins, and my attendance at the recent NATO summit in Lithuania, highlighted that this vision is not limited by our geography.”
He said both countries had suffered the economic consequences of that war.
“It is a reminder that the world is an increasingly challenging place to navigate and that maintaining stability requires our work attention and vigilance,” he said.
“We live in a world where we need friends, partners, and allies like New Zealand.
“We always get better results when we work together.”
Hipkins, who still seems to be feeling his way on international affairs, had less to say on the topic.
But what he did say might explain why he refused to reciprocate President Xi Jinping’s description of New Zealand as a “friend and partner”.
He seemed to endorse Australia’s much more hawkish stance on China.
“New Zealand and Australia share many common views on the increase in geo-strategic competition throughout our region,” he said.
“And of course, it’s been an ongoing topic of conversation between our two countries over the last couple of years, and particularly in the last six months that Prime Minister Albanese and I have been having conversations about that, and I’m sure that we’ll continue to compare notes, we’ll continue to share insights, and we’ll continue to work together on those issues.”
But working together has its limits.
While Australia is busy trying to sort out its AUKUS nuclear submarine programme, New Zealand has a more modest agenda, as Hipkins pointed out.
“When it comes to defence. It’s not just about military capability, it’s also about the disaster response and so on, and that goes with all of that,” he said.
Australia, meanwhile, remains focused on China.
Its Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy, is currently in the Solomon Islands, whose Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has just returned with a sheaf of co-operation agreements from a trip to Beijing.
“He’s reaffirmed the Solomons declaration that Australia remains the security partner of choice,” said Albanese confirming that security remains Australia’s top priority in the Pacific region.
Hipkins’ view was less security-focused.
“We want to make sure that our relationships are very strong with those countries so that they do look to New Zealand and Australia as their preferred international partners as they have throughout a long period of history,” he said.
“I think that the work that New Zealand and Australia do together through things like the Pacific Islands Forum is incredibly important, and we’re absolutely committed to continuing down that path.”
But in the first concrete announcement to do something to mark the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic relationship, the two countries have agreed to work on easing up travel across the Tasman.
But Albanese said the two countries were now looking at how Smart Gates could be set so that travellers would only need to pass through one “so that before you get on a plane in either country, it’s already recognized that you’re okay to come in and therefore can just go through smart Gate in a seamless way and in a timely way as well.”
He said he expected work to complete by June next year.
It is not quite the 21st-century version of Gallipoli, but it may be the best we can do in the meantime.