Key beats Australian drum softly

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 11/02/2013
Julia Gillard and John Key
BLAIR PATTINSON/Fairfax NZ
GIDDAY MATE: Australian prime minister Julia Gillard is greeted by New Zealand prime minister John Key on arrival in Queenstown ahead of their weekend meetings.

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OPINION: Prime Minister John Key says of the Australians that "we need them more than they need us".

That much was clear during his summit with Australian counterpart Julia Gillard in Queenstown. Both leaders went there looking for solutions to domestic problems. But while Gillard talked up the bonds of friendship and family between the two countries, it was Key who made the biggest gesture, agreeing to take in 150 refugees a year from Australian processing centres.

Gillard's response to Key's big headache - the plight of Kiwi migrants across the Tasman, an estimated 100,000 of whom live with no welfare safety net - was to make no concessions.

"We have arrangements for New Zealanders that have a generosity associated with them not given to any other nationals from any other country," she said.

"New Zealanders can come to Australia and access our labour market without restrictions. We don't confer that benefit on any other nation."

It was left to Key to take a more conciliatory line.

Despite a growing outcry domestically at Australia's refusal to reciprocate benefits afforded to Australians in New Zealand, he reminded journalists the 2001 deal whipping away welfare benefits for Kiwis across the Tasman was agreed between both countries.

The threat at the time was Australia might pull the plug completely on the free flow of people between the two countries - something that had been enshrined since the 1920s.

Freedom to live and work across the Tasman remains the touchstone for New Zealand, Key insists.

About 53,000 Kiwis upped sticks for Australia last year. In June 2012, it was estimated about 640,000 New Zealanders were living across the Tasman.

"You've got to remember for all New Zealanders they have every opportunity to go and work in Australia if they want to. So that's something we want to hold on to very tightly."

Behind the scenes, however, there have been signs that Australia might bend. Key confirmed Australia was "looking at the issue and have for some time".

Internal Australian immigration documents, issued last week, reveal a proposed "pathway" that would allow Kiwis living in Australia to gain residency after "eight years or more".

The proposal was presented to the Australian Cabinet - and New Zealand government sources confirm it is only one of several options the Australian Government has looked at.

But Key shot down any likelihood of imminent change, and government sources are determinedly playing down expectations in an Australian election year. As a senior New Zealand government minister acknowledged, beating the drum too loudly on this side of the Tasman would only paint "a huge bullseye" on Gillard.

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In an Australian briefing paper, it is estimated changing the system could give about 15,000 more Kiwis access to social welfare.

That makes it a fraught issue for the Gillard government to contemplate at any time - yet alone an election year - with New Zealand migration to Australia at record levels.

And as Key acknowledged, the alternative is an Australia that severs the final ties and ignores its smaller neighbour altogether.

His pledge to take 150 refugees a year from Australia might be a drop in the ocean compared with Australia's recent pledge to up its quota to 20,000. However, it helps Gillard out of a growing asylum seeker mess by lending legitimacy to her overseas processing plans.

The quid pro quo is that it reminds Australia that New Zealand is still relevant.

INITIATIVES

Julia Gillard and John Key announced: Joint action to bring down exorbitant mobile roaming rates through new powers for consumer watchdogs on both sides of the Tasman.

Australia will trial fast-track automated technology for departures from Australian airports with the aim of achieving "domestic-like" travel between the two countries.

New Zealand will take 150 asylum seekers a year from Australian detention centres.

Australia confirmed its support for New Zealand's bid for Security Council membership in 2015-16.

Joint funding over the next two years to support the development of a potential vaccine for rheumatic fever. Officials have been charged with investigating a mutual student debt recovery scheme.

- Stuff

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