There will be little fundamental change in the trans-Tasman relationship as a consequence of Saturday’s Australian election.
The new Australian Labor Government is unlikely to make any substantial changes to its policy of deporting released prisoners with New Zealand citizenship.
And though the new Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, wants a greater focus on the Pacific, the relationship with the United States will remain the bedrock of Australia’s foreign policy.
What may be more significant could be the political lessons that our party strategists draw from the Australian result.
The first of those will be what was dramatically underlined in the recent French Presidential election; voters are turning away from the traditional parties. There in the first round of the recent Presidential election, the Republicans (the traditional Gaullists) and the Socialists together got only 6.5 per cent of the vote.
It was nowhere near that scale in Australia, but the trend is the same. Voting for the two main parties on Saturday was down 13.5 per cent on the votes they got when Tony Abbott led the Liberal-National coalition to power in 2013.
Counting in Australia is not yet complete, but late yesterday only 68 per cent of the electorate had voted for either the Liberal-Nation coalition or Labor.
At our last election, in 2020, 75.6 per cent of the electorate voted for either Labour or National.
However, the forces that split the vote in Australia are not necessarily present in New Zealand.
Both the Greens and the so-called Teal candidates focussed on climate change and corruption and sleaze in politics.
Most notably, our two main parties agree on the climate change targets though they disagree on how to achieve them.
The issue of sleaze in politics here might not be so easily disposed of with three separate court cases involving a Serious Fraud Office prosecution of New Zealand First officers and the Office’s prosecution of several individuals over donations to Labour and National.
There may be other lessons from Australia on the importance of candidates being “local” and, as is often the case in Australia, the way some immigrant communities vote in blocks.
Often that has been the Jewish community; Australia has the ninth largest Jewish population in the world, with an estimated 112,000 Jewish people, and they have been a significant factor in Australia’s support at the United Nations for Israel.
But the ABC reported on Saturday night that in Australia’s top five Chinese language speaking electorates, there had been a greater swing against the coalition, which was interpreted as a possible response to comments from Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who has forecast a possible war with China over Taiwan.
Some of the seats where the Chinese voted against the coalition, like Chisolm in Melbourne, were highly marginal, so their vote had an impact.
Parliamentary library statistics suggest that New Zealand’s Chinese migrants are heavily concentrated in safe National seats like Botany, Epsom and Pakuranga, so their political impact is less.
In broader foreign policy terms, it would seem unlikely that there would be any substantial change in Australia’s support of the United States in its growing challenge to China in the Asia-Pacific region.
Labor’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, told POLITIK in 2019 that the ANZUS Treaty remained the base of Australian foreign policy and that there was bipartisan agreement on that.
On that trip here, for the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum, Wong, Anthony Albanese, Jacinda Ardern, and Winston Peters had a working breakfast, but Peters told POLITIK last night it was not really substantial enough for him to form any deep impression of Albanese.
Albanese’s speech to the Forum did not reveal much though he said Sydney’s ANZAC bridge with the statue of an Australian soldier at one end and a New Zealand statue at the other symbolised his understanding of the trans-Tasman relationship.
Albanese and Wong fly to Tokyo today as soon as they have been sworn in for a meeting of the “Quad” with United States President Joe Biden, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
New Zealand is not a member of the Quad.
Instead, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that during the trade mission she is leading to the United States today, she will visit Washington and meet senior members of the Senate.
There have been suggestions she might meet Biden but that her catching Covid may have put an end to that.
Regardless, Australia is now one of the lead countries in the Asia-Pacific region in what is becoming a united front intended to challenge and balance China’s influence.
Much of this is focused on the Pacific.
Wong has promised a Labor Government would establish a new Australia-Pacific Defence School to provide training for members of the defence and security forces from Pacific Island nations; double Australia’s funding for the Pacific Maritime Security Program, which provides aerial surveillance of Pacific Island countries’ exclusive economic zones; deliver an Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy and boost Australian Official Development Assistance for Pacific countries and Timor-Leste by $525 million over the next four years.
She has also promised a Labor Government would ease visa restrictions for workers from the Pacific.
And in a move that will surely be welcomed by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, she has pledged to deliver a First Nations foreign policy and appoint an Ambassador for First Nations peoples.
Victoria University of Wellignton Strategic Studies Professor, Robert Ayson, recently summed up the differences between Australia and New Zealand foreign policy in the Pacific.
“In the South Pacific, New Zealand has a more direct stake in the outcome and a strategy of its own to fashion,” he said.
“That means some choosing needs to be done.
“I don’t mean the tired old story of finding a balance between the US and China: New Zealand is too closely aligned to Washington for that to be a serious consideration, and its ties to Australia are even stronger.
“Instead New Zealand needs to find the right balance between joining in on the Australian-led management of South Pacific security and responding with its own recipe.
“A change of government in Canberra after Saturday’s contest might peg back the tensions between these two approaches. But it certainly won’t remove them entirely.”
But if there is likely to be a meeting of minds across the Tasman on the Pacific, there is unlikely to be much movement on the deportation of the so-called “501s”; New Zealand citizens who have been jailed or who simply cannot pass a “good character” test.
Asked specifically last Thursday whether he would stop the deportations, Albanese said: “section 501 applies for breaches of people who are on visas, and if people commit serious offences, then action should be taken in Australia’s national interest.”
So though the personnel in the Australian Government will now change, the fundamental policies that define the trans-Tasman relationship look unlikely to change much.
About the best we might expect is a slight change in tone and language.