Editorial: No rest for Key in job with Australia

Last updated 05:00 29/06/2010

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OPINION: When Julia Gillard became prime minister of Australia, Prime Minister John Key was the first foreign leader to phone in his congratulations.

He needs to hope his fast dialling finger will deliver a better result than his predecessor, Helen Clark, achieved with her swift flight over for a cup of tea with Kevin Rudd when he got the job – in his time as prime minister Mr Rudd never quite made it to New Zealand for an official visit.

Mr Key, like Miss Clark before him, is smart enough to realise the onus is on Wellington to keep reminding Canberra what the "NZ" stands for in Anzac. The reality, however unpalatable it might be to some, is that New Zealand is simply not as important to Australia as Australia is to New Zealand.

Australia is New Zealand's most important trading partner and its most important security relationship.

It is where most New Zealanders who emigrate go. In the year to June 2009, New Zealand imports from Australia totalled $7.69 billion and its exports there $9.72b. Much New Zealand business is ultimately run from Australian headquarters – including the company that publishes this newspaper.

New Zealand ministers regularly attend meetings of their Australian federal and state counterparts. Our defence forces work more closely with the Australians than with any other nation, exercising, buying equipment together and serving together.

It is in New Zealand's interests to keep that relationship moving forward and developing, with closer integration of the two countries' economies and more uniformity in regulations, so that irritants can be dealt with quickly.

It is unrealistic to expect Ms Gillard to devote too much attention to New Zealand in the coming weeks. She has an election to win.

That means convincing Australians she is a different kettle of fish from the aloof Mr Rudd, whose major political sins were failing to take people with him and an anger that seems at times to have verged on petulant. His topple from the pinnacles of popularity has been swift.

Her problem is that she was part of his inner cabinet. The politically debilitating battle over the super tax on mining and the backdown over an emissions trading scheme – which went from being "the greatest moral challenge" of our time to something that became too hard to do – were decisions she was part of.

Those problems do not go away just because it is Ms Gillard in charge, not Mr Rudd, and that is where her focus will be.

Talk about whether New Zealand and Australia should take their relationship to the next level and look at issues such as a common border can wait until the Australian election is over.

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Mr Key's job is to ensure New Zealand's interests are not damaged in the meantime.

Miss Clark and John Howard reportedly enjoyed a warm relationship despite their different political ideologies. The hope must be that the state-house son of a refugee and the daughter of a 10 immigrant from Wales can do the same.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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