Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee has extracted a promise from the Australian Government that it will pay more attention to New Zealanders when it makes major policy changes in future.
In his first major assignment in the portfolio, he was also given a reassurance from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that there are no further changes in the pipeline for Kiwi expatriates. Fears that Kiwis could soon be made to pay for public schools in Australia were dismissed as "speculation" by Bishop.
Brownlee was, however, unable to persuade the Australian Government to review its decision to hike New Zealand citizens' university fees. Although expats will be given access to student loans for the first time, many say the higher fees will make university study in the country unaffordable.
The bilateral talks in Sydney were a chance for Brownlee to introduce himself in his new role, but they also carried extra significance because of Prime Minister Bill English's statement earlier this week that he was "unhappy" with the ongoing erosion of New Zealanders' rights in Australia and with Canberra's failure to give any advance warning about major policy changes.
That tension was not on show at a press conference held by the two foreign ministers yesterday. Brownlee spoke warmly of the two countries' traditional relationship and his opposite, even referring to her as Prime Minister at one point.
The talks were "in my opinion, quite easy", he told reporters. Bishop described the transtasman relationship as "one of the closest that could exist" between two countries.
Bishop also revealed that her Government had formally agreed to get a better understanding of how its policy-making affected New Zealanders. She emphasised that this did not amount to a review of the changes to tuition fees. Officials were "not reviewing anything", she said.
Brownlee downplayed Australia's education proposals, saying they needed to be seen in the context of the two countries' "very long relationship" and that they were "not things that cannot be sorted out ... or discussed in future."
Speaking to the Herald after the bilateral talks, he said he made it clear to Bishop that he was disappointed New Zealand was not notified earlier about the education proposals, as well as recent changes to citizenship rules and deportations.
Beginning in January, Australian permanent residents from all countries and New Zealand citizens will pay full fees - an average increase of A$8000 to A$9000 a year. About 6000 New Zealanders are in this category.
Bishop championed the higher education reforms. While study would not be "a free service", she said, the changes would give more Kiwis an opportunity to study in the country.
Ahead of the talks, immigration researchers raised fears that the next step could be to charge New Zealanders to send their children to state schools.
Victoria University researcher Paul Hamer said Australian states had proposed such a move when the John Howard-led Government had tightened immigration rules in 2001, and it had always remained a possibility.
Brownlee said there was "no validity" to claims that Australian states could charge for schooling.