Editorial: It's good to let Aussies know we value them

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard chats with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key at the APEC summit last year. Photo / Supplied
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard chats with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key at the APEC summit last year. Photo / Supplied

In the common language of Australia and New Zealand, we are mates. We are not sentimental about it, we simply understand it. We do not always see eye to eye and we give each other no quarter on a sporting field, but when either of us really needs help, the other is there.

New Zealand welcomes Australia's Prime Minister today after a devastating sequence of climatic disasters for the "lucky" country. Floods in Queensland have left a A$5.6 billion ($7.4 billion) bill for rebuilding roads, bridges, telecommunications and other infrastructure. About A$600 million worth of crops have been destroyed and A$2.5 billion cut from coal exports.

Then came Cyclone Yasi, leaving damage that will cost at least A$1 billion to repair and possibly much more. Bush fires around Perth have destroyed 68 homes and burned more than 1000ha of land. Severe floods have also hit Victoria with a force that will stretch federal and state budgets. The fragile Government of Julia Gillard is cutting spending, deferring infrastructure projects and proposing a A$1.8 billion tax levy to pay for urgent flood reconstruction.

With the levy under Opposition attack, she will find her two days in Wellington a respite from the task of persuading her Green and conservative allies to support it. She will also find a great deal of gratitude here for the help Australia readily provided when disaster struck the Pike River mine three months ago. The equipment and expertise quickly sent from Australia were deeply encouraging while hope remained that the lost miners might be alive.

Visits by Australian prime ministers remain sadly too rare. That is perhaps a perverse consequence of a relationship so close. Ministers and officials have a natural working acquaintance with counterparts in Canberra and formal state occasions have low priority. But the relationship always takes its cue from the chemistry at the top.

John Key and Julia Gillard are said to get along very well. They are the same age and neither has the overbearing ego that has caused problems in the past. Ms Gillard will be accorded an honour unprecedented for a visiting head of government here when she speaks in Parliament's debating chamber tomorrow. That is a privilege the Australian Parliament extends to visiting leaders of special value and the gesture will be well understood in Canberra.

Oddly, the New Zealand Green Party, not by nature sticklers for tradition, prevented her speaking when the House is formally in session, fearing that would set a precedent for others. It should set a precedent for Australian prime ministers, symbolising the familiarity of close neighbours. New Zealand would hope it would be reciprocated.

Mr Key and Ms Gillard also have more practical matters on their plate. He and her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, started a drive in 2009 to extend closer economic relations in air travel, science and technology. There has been little progress towards a common border, but progress on the others, plus a new agreement on investment rules, could be recorded this week.

The entitlements of the many New Zealanders working in Australia will also be discussed. Ms Gillard was quick to make provision for them in flood relief rules recently. But the most telling joint response to disaster could be the formation of a crisis management group to co-ordinate relief.

The two countries' defence ministers have already adopted the idea of a joint ready-response force to meet crises such as East Timor and the Solomons in recent times. That is an expression of the Anzac spirit that survives any strain over defence spending or policy differences. We are natural partners by heritage, character and our position in the world. And sometimes we should get sentimental about it.

- NZ Herald

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