A great dividing range

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 24/03/2013
Howard
John Selkirk/FairfaxNZ

Dear John: John Howard may have not been every Kiwi’s favourite Aussie PM but he says he switched allegiances to cheer for the All Blacks during the 2011 Rugby World Cup – once Australia had been knocked out.

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Seated across from each other in a New York restaurant they made for an unlikely couple.

On one side of the table was John Howard, one of Australia's most successful prime ministers; darling of the political Right, bogeyman of the Left after taking the role as America's deputy sheriff in the Pacific, and becoming the villain in the Tampa affair.

His lunch companion was Helen Clark, the socially liberal former New Zealand prime minister, a flag-flying Iraq war opponent, standard bearer for the Left-wing social democratic movement - and the woman who even now, four years on from losing the election, can spark visceral dislike among many on the Right.

Mates? Of course, says Howard, after they caught up recently for a chinwag in New York.

"We don't just exchange Christmas cards."

As the Australian election looms, there will be almost as much interest on this side of the Tasman in the outcome.

Relations between Australia and New Zealand have often rested on the relationship between the prime ministers of both countries.

Howard's rise to power was a turning point in that respect.

His first overseas visit as prime minister was to New Zealand, and he forged close bonds with former National prime minister Jim Bolger.

When power changed hands in New Zealand, delivering Howard's polar opposite Clark to power, the relationship could have struggled. But both were determined to make it work.

"It was a good relationship. It was pragmatic. Circumstances, the Anzac relationship, required the both of us to work together," says Howard, who was in New Zealand last week on a speaking engagement.

Maybe so. But historic and geographical ties have not always been enough to put the relationship on a friendly footing. Before Howard and Clark it was Lange and Hawke, Muldoon and Fraser. Tension, backstabbing, and suspicion reigned.

Howard and Clark wanted something different.

"We just took the view that the relationship deserved a strong commitment from both of us," Howard says.

The diminutive former Australian prime minister has visited New Zealand several times since his government was dumped in 2007. He even switched allegiances to cheer for the All Blacks during the 2011 Rugby World Cup after Australia went out.

But affection for New Zealand was still not enough to stop the Howard government rolling its New Zealand counterpart over welfare entitlements in 2001.

Not even the friendship between Clark and Howard could prevent it.

Confronted with a growing welfare bill of close to $1 billion for Kiwis living across the Tasman, the Australian government stripped away welfare entitlements in return for maintaining the longstanding freedom to live and work across the Tasman.

Howard is unapologetic about the change.

"It hasn't impeded the flow of people has it?"

He is right. Last year ranks as the worst on record for New Zealand migration across the Tasman - 53,900 left to pursue a new life in Australia.

A NEW UNDERCLASS?

But more than a decade on from the welfare rule changes, there is criticism about a growing underclass of young Kiwis in Australia, many of them schooled in Australia, who can't access education and other entitlements because their parents don't have permanent residency.

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Howard refuses to engage on the underclass debate however.

"It's something that the two governments have got to deal with. I'm out of it."

Besides, at the time the deal was done, there was no alternative, he insists.

The arrangement was clearly in need of reform and not doing anything about that would have bred resentment against Kiwis in Australia, Howard says.

"It was really to forestall resentment, rather than responding to resentment that we made the change."

No amount of sugar coating disguises the fact, however, that it was a kick in the teeth for the Clark government.

But when John Howard needed help just a few months later, Clark did not hesitate.

Howard came under fire domestically and internationally in the midst of the 2001 election campaign after he refused to accept hundreds of asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian ship Tampa.

Clark stepped forward to offer him a way out, offering to take 131 of the refugees.

Howard admits Clark was helpful to Australia on more than one occasion.

"She could have adopted a different attitude but she didn't and I tried to reciprocate."

But a former adviser says Clark only stepped in because she was appalled at the situation.

"She saved Howard's bacon in that election. Howard got a solution out of it which was pretty good for the Liberals and John Howard." But as for the quid pro quo?

"I think you'd be hard pressed to find an example of that."

When the Australian election delivered a new prime minister across the Tasman in Kevin Rudd, closely followed by the New Zealand election installing John Key in 2008, the friendliness that had marked the relationship over the previous decade could have stalled again.

Unlike Howard, Rudd did not prioritise New Zealand, and put off several trips across the Tasman.

The coup that installed Julia Gillard in his place is still causing ructions in Australia, but as far as New Zealand is concerned, it was a blessing to trans-Tasman relations.

STRONGER BOND

Gillard and Key, again polar opposites politically, have forged even stronger bonds than Clark and Howard.

Key says getting the personal dynamics in the relationship right is "critical". With Gillard, it helps that their partners get on as well.

Once all the official business was out of the way during their two-day summit in Queenstown last month, Key and Gillard escaped to the exclusive Millbrook resort for dinner with partners Bronagh and Tim. They did the same in Melbourne last year.

"We have a no officials, casual dinner, have a drink together," Key said.

But Key is also pragmatic about how far a friendly relationship can take him; like the Howard government in 2001, the Gillard government will always act in its own best interests domestically.

"In the end, we have wanted imputation credits with Australia and we have made tremendous progress on that front; but in the end sometimes there's domestic pushback that is hard to get around."

That is different, he says, from being able to rely on Australia standing alongside New Zealand when it counts.

"Australia will always support New Zealand in a moment of need."

The big unknown is a possible Tony Abbott government - though he and Key have already struck up a good relationship, and speak to each other regularly.

Howard, meanwhile, is confident Abbot can only be good for New Zealand.

"He's got a good start. His wife is a New Zealander."

- Sunday Star Times

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