Gerry Brownlee's Aussie trip nothing but a fizzer

Gerry Brownlee met with Julie Bishop in Sydney.
JASON REED/REUTERS

Gerry Brownlee met with Julie Bishop in Sydney.

 OPINION: For a few days this week, the New Zealand Government hinted it would be taking a tougher stand on Australia's approach to New Zealanders, apparently angered by the sudden and unexplained cutting of tertiary education support.

Throughout all its time in power, the National government had blamed the predicament of New Zealanders in Australia on Helen Clark, who it alleged had failed to defend New Zealand's interests.

Now, confronted by a series of announcements that constituted the greatest attack on Kiwis in Australia since 2001, Bill English had the chance to demonstrate his government was made of sterner stuff.

He suggested that he wanted to take Australia to task, not only for the events of the last few weeks, but for its attitude to New Zealanders more broadly.

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It was announced that Gerry Brownlee would be dispatched to express New Zealand's displeasure and even the Australia media began to wonder how this might rock the relationship.

In the end, though, it was a fizzer. Arriving in Sydney on Thursday morning, Brownlee immediately folded.

During his press conference with Julie Bishop, the New Zealand Government's flaccid response was on full display.

Brownlee just stood there, mouthing platitudes about how close the relationship was and how we were all such great mates.

There was no sign of any fight in the man. He didn't even criticise Australia's policy that would see Kiwis in Australia forced to pay university fees many times higher than their Australian classmates.

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Instead, he repeated Australian Government talking points about how the higher education changes would encourage more New Zealanders to study in Australia.

If Bishop and Brownlee truly believe this, they take Kiwis for mugs.

What was most obviously missing in Brownlee's performance was any hint of concern for the thousands of young New Zealanders who have had their study plans upended and their dreams shattered.

It seems governments on both sides of the Tasman are happy to wash their hands of responsibility for them and their futures.

For Brownlee, they're apparently acceptable collateral damage in Australia's attempt to repair its budget.

Also lacking was any attempt to rebalance a relationship that has become alarmingly unequal and ensure that Kiwis are not targeted again in future.

Brownlee needed to confront an attitude amongst Australian politicians and officials, who increasingly view the relationship in terms of "concessions" to New Zealand, rather than in terms of common rights and obligations as part of a special and mutually beneficial relationship.

It is this attitude that allowed Bishop, despite just tearing up decades of reciprocal rights for students, to characterise her approach to New Zealanders as "generous".

However, instead of challenging this, Brownlee danced to Australia's tune. After nine years, it is all too clear that the National government's chummy approach to the relationship has failed to defend the interests of New Zealand or New Zealanders.

It is time for a new approach.

Timothy Gassin is the chairman of Oz Kiwi, a lobby group for Kiwi's rights in Australia.

 - Stuff

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