New Zealand High Commissioner Laurie Francis and Australia's Trade Minister, Lionel Bowen, sign the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement in March 1983 in Canberra

Last year the Australia New Zealand Business Forum promised a big celebration this year to mark forty years of the Closer Economic Relationship between New Zealand and Australia.

What unfolded over the past two days at Wellington’s new convention centre, despite a big gala dinner last night addressed by the Prime Minister,  was a good deal less than that.

Even a heavyweight panel convened to discuss the state of the relationship couldn’t come up with much that was new or even insightful.

Most media are not admitted to discussions within the various sessions, but POLITIK was invited to participate; however, the discussions were held under Chatham House roles, which means specific comments could not be attributed to specific participants.

However, at the end-of-day panel, a well-known economist expressed the frustrations of many delegates at the Forum.

“We talked a lot over the last day or so, about forty years of closer economic relations, but I sort of wonder if we need to get over this,” he said.

“I sort of wonder if we need to get over this because it is that question of where are we going next but I don’t get the feeling that we are taking that idea on.

“There are a lot of challenges that we either let  wash over us, or we hurry up and build the ark so that we can work through them.”

It seems CER is now so much a given in the trans-Tasman relationship that it just ticks over, leaving business to get on with its business.

However, it has been a huge success.

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Between 1983 and 2003, Australia and New Zealand’s trade with each other grew on average nine per cent a year, while Australia’s trade with other countries grew by only 8.5 per cent, while New Zealand’s grew by just  6.3% each year.

New Zealand is Australia’s fifth-largest export market and eighth-largest source of imports. Australia is New Zealand’s principal trading partner (21% of imports and 21% of exports).

Perhaps understandably, there may be an air of complacency about the agreement within both Government and business.

Perhaps that was why there were few big-name Australians at the event.

Last year Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers headed a long list of Ministers who, in turn, were supported by a number of top CEOs.

POLITIK Australia’s Assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres speaking at the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum yesterday

This year it was Associate Trade Minister Tim Ayres who has already appeared (and spoken at) this week at the CPTPP Commission meeting and then the China New Zealand Business Summit.

Ayres seems to have a genuine affection for New Zealand and our Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor.

The pair made much of the fact that in international trade, the two countries frequently work together, and on Sunday at the CPTPP, Ayres reminded the media of how Australia and New Zealand were both members of the Cairns Group, which Australia founded and which is dedicated to ending protectionism on agricultural products.

There were some big New Zealand names at the Forum, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran and Fonterra CEO Mike Hurrell, for a start.

And New Zealand Ministers included Grant Robertson, Damien O’Connor and Nanaia Mahuta.

But it was not an extensive list, and it was easier to spot the gaps in the audience than find the stars.

POLITIK Trade Minister Damien O’Connor at the Forum

Instead, in his address to the conference dinner last night, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed that Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would be here next week.

And Hipkins set out the New Zealand Government’s views on where the agreement might go from here.

These started with a seamless movement of people and goods across the Tasman.

“Secondly, CER and the Single Economic Market need to be actively used to support both Australia and New Zealand’s transition to green economies and the achievement of net zero targets,” he said.

“Thirdly, Australia and New Zealand need to think more broadly about our economic cooperation so that it also benefits our region. We need to work with our partners in the Pacific to promote shared security and prosperity. 

Fourthly, we need to extend and deepen collaboration between our Māori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and businesses.

“And finally, we need to build the Single Economic Market in a way that promotes and supports digital, technical and scientific innovation.”

Those objectives were not all that much different to a background paper prepared for Forum delegates.

But the paper also identified areas where New Zealand was falling behind under the agreement.

Financial investment between the two countries has increased significantly since the passage of CER, with Australia being New Zealand’s most significant foreign direct investment source,  the paper said.

“However, globally, New Zealand’s inward Foreign Direct Investment has increased notably slower than Australia’s, indicating limited exposure,” the paper said.

“To fully realise the opportunities offered by CER, capital is essential.

The paper also found productivity growth had been slow for decades, and both countries faced significant skills shortages.

POLITIK Finance MInister Grant Robertson speaking at the Forum

New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson addressed the issues raised in the paper (and agreed to do so publicly)  and invoked his other Ministerial role, as Minister of Sport and Recreation, to offer lessons that could be learned from the two countries hosting of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

He said that after FIFAS expanded the event, Australia could not host it on its own, so he invited New Zealand to join.

Nearly two billion people would watch the event on TV, he said.

“ So it is just the most extraordinary possible opportunity for both New Zealand and Australia,” he said.

“It also happens very closely with the kind of issues and approaches that we want to take.

“It is about the empowerment of women and girls.

“It’s about equality and integration, and it fits very closely with the way we see wellbeing.”

Robertson also highlighted how Australia and New Zealand had held the first joint meeting of both countries’ finance ministers with their climate change ministers.

“The challenge for all of us is what does the next 40 years of that agreement (CER) look like,” he said.

“If you were signing it today, I did set guarantee you it would have an environmental climate protocol attached to it.

“It would have a digital chapter; it would have an indigenous chapter.

“And our job now is to take this asset base that we have and take it on in those areas and others for the next 40 years.”

A former Australian Minister speaking to the Forum said what had come through was that the two countries had a great challenge ahead of them partly because of the changed global dynamic that we faced.

“We can’t relax and think forty years has been great; forty years has been good, but it hasn’t been great,” he said.

“There is a lot more we have to do.

“If Portugal and Estonia can open up seamless  arrangements where they all speak different languages, we should be able to do far more here than what we are doing; technology, digitalisation, the customs areas, the banning of the borders, sea and air, are all right for great focus right now.”

So that was the challenge; to not so much complacently celebrate 40 years of CER but rather than plan for 40 years of developments within CER.