Audrey Young 's Opinion

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Summit solves leaders' two prickly problems

99 comments
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard fronts a large media contingent at the Hilton Queenstown. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard fronts a large media contingent at the Hilton Queenstown. Photo / Otago Daily Times

As political summits go, the one between cobbers and mates in Queenstown at the weekend was one of the better ones, and not just because of the beautiful setting and weather.

The outcome of such summits are sometimes turgid communiques with nuanced changes in position on ongoing areas of joint concern that no one but the highly trained diplomat can interpret.

This time diplomats were put to better use. It was a do-fest, not a talk-fest.

The outcome was still carefully choreographed in advance of the actual bilateral meeting between Prime Minister John Key and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and their teams which lasted only two hours on Saturday morning.

There were two two significant announcements - moves to lower data roaming rates and New Zealand to take 150 refugees from Australia, and agreements that work will begin on three new projects: collecting each other's student loan debt; the building of an Australian monument at the National War Memorial in Wellington; and closer cooperation on fighting cyber attacks.

Whether the results were good for New Zealand is another matter.

No consumer would argue with the move to get data roaming rates down - do it yourself or it will be done to you, telcos in both New Zealand and Australia have been told.

The refugee move, on the other hand, has provoked a backlash on both sides of the Tasman.

Officially the move means New Zealand will take 150 people a year approved as genuine refugees in Australia's offshore processing bases in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

In reality, New Zealand has agreed to take 150 boat people every year who land in Australia - or are picked up from distressed boats headed towards Australia - and are approved.

Many questions remain unanswered: what's in it for New Zealand? What's in it for Australia? What's in it for boat people? And why now?

New Zealand did Australia a favour in 2001 by accepting 131 refugees from the Tampa, and since then 250 relatives of theirs have settled in New Zealand. But the 150 a year is an entrenched policy, not a one-off response to a special event.

On the face of it, there appears to be nothing in it for New Zealand but the timing is important.

On the same day that New Zealand agreed to share Australia's boat people problem, Australia agreed to look at ways of collecting $600 million in student debt from Kiwis in Australia.

No one will come out and say that this was a mutual back-scratching exercise but Australia has been pressing New Zealand for several years to help with boat people and New Zealand has been pressing Australia to help collect debt. Suddenly there's action on both prickly problems and that's not likely to be a coincidence.

Key puts his goodwill gesture down to several factors: recognising the intelligence New Zealand gets from Australia on asylum seekers; and a recognition that some boat people picked up in Australian waters were on their way to New Zealand.

The shorter term response has been broad opposition.

Of course people who just dont like refugees dont like it.

Liberals who have sympathy for asylum seekers dont like it because it involves an acceptance of the offshore processing centres in relatively grotty places, Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

And people who think the boat people are queue jumping with a paid passage ahead of more deserving refugees in camps around the world dont like it.

Even New Zealand's"common sense" politician doesnt like it. National's support partner and United Future leader Peter Dunne's quick response by Twitter was "We should take the 150 we want, not the 150 Australia will not have."

Gillard gets a win of sorts, albeit just a symbolic one. Having failed to get the help of East Timor and having been knocked by the Malaysian High Court in arriving at response that involved a refugee swap with Malaysia, she at least gets her closest neighbour to share the problem.

At 150 it is a drop in the bucket. It will be part of New Zealand's commitment to take 750 refugees.

Australia has just increased its commitment from 13,750 annually to 20,000.

Her opponents argue that the New Zealand move is adding a little sugar to the mix.

It has been a terribly vexed issue for Gillard.

Former Prime Minister John Howard stopped boat people in their tracks when he got tough and opened Nauru and Manus Island processing centres. Labor hated it and stopped using them, preferring their own Christmas Island centre.

But the boat arrivals started up again and more than 600 asylum seekers drowned in the past three years, the Nauru and PNG centres have been re-opened.

Gillard is intent on sending a tough message to boat people - that you wont get any favours if you jump on a boat and head to Australia; that you will be detained somewhere (not pleasant) for as long as you would have waited in a camp.

If the message gets through, the problem should be cut dramatically. If it doesnt, the arrivals will continue and they could make it to New Zealand.

That is when the real pay-off for New Zealand could come. At a press conference, Key alluded to the possibility that Australia could process any mass arrivals of boat people that landed on New Zealand's shores.

In that sense, New Zealand's 150 a year now can be seen as a longer term insurance policy in order to call on our cobbers in the event of a mass arrival here.


Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

Read more by Audrey Young

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 03 Oct 2014 00:24:49 Processing Time: 487ms