Australia could learn a lot from New Zealand's foreign policy, international relations expert says

An international relations expert says Australia could learn a lot from New Zealand's foreign policy and should reflect on the two countries' differences instead of dismissing them.

In late February, the Sydney Morning Herald published a report examining the frosty relations between Australia and New Zealand after the two nations clashed over foreign policy matters. 

"While the leader-to-leader relationship remains warm, there is a growing list of areas where the trans-Tasman relationship is straining," the SMH said before detailing recent incidents where there had been tensions between Australia and New Zealand. 

Melissa Conley Tyler, an expert in diplomacy at the University of Melbourne and former national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), has reacted to that report by asking why commentators are so surprised. 

In a Wednesday column for the AIIA titled 'Is Australia Humble Enough to Learn from New Zealand?', Tyler says that while the countries are close in geography and culture, they often have different interests. 

"Those old enough will remember a 90-year dispute over apples. But because of the close economic relationship and because Australians like New Zealand so much, the presumption is that they'll always get on," she writes.

"In fact, there is a lot to learn from taking Australia's and New Zealand's differences seriously rather than dismissing them."

Tyler lays out a number of examples of New Zealand keeping Australia "honest", such as Aotearoa's complaints over Australia's '501' deportation policy.

Section 501 of Australia's Migration Act allows officials to send someone back to their home country if they don't pass a character test, regardless of whether they still have ties to that country. 

It's been called "corrosive" to the New Zealand-Australia relationship by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and is believed to have resulted in rising gang activity in Aotearoa. Last February, Ardern sent a stinging message to her Australian counterpart, telling him not to "deport your people and your problems".

Tyler also points out a recent sour point in the two countries' relations, when Ardern blasted Australia for stripping the citizenship of a dual national linked to Islamic State who may soon be deported from Turkey. As a result of Australia's action, the woman may now be sent to New Zealand. 

"What Australia sees as putting its own interests first may look to New Zealand like it is abdicating its responsibilities," Tyler writes.

"With an estimated 650,000 New Zealanders in Australia and 70,000 Australians in New Zealand, issues like these will continue to be an irritant in the relationship, particularly because, in reality, there is little New Zealand can do about it. 

"Taking New Zealand's concerns seriously forces Australia to consider whether it would be comfortable for others to emulate its behaviour."

Tyler also examines differences between Australia and New Zealand on foreign policy matters and how this has recently stressed relations. 

One example she gives is New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor's controversial remarks suggesting Australia could better its relationship with China by following Aotearoa's lead and showing more respect to the Asian powerhouse. This came after New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta offered to mediate a truce between feuding Australia and China.

As Tyler writes, "this got a reaction", with Australian politicians outraged by O'Connor sticking his head into their affairs. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison ended up speaking to Ardern and O'Connor was "quickly reined in", issuing a statement where he said the Australia-China relationship was a matter for them.

"It is a shame that this was closed down so quickly," Tyler says.

"Australia is not alone in having to manage a challenging relationship with China. Looking at how other countries are handling China – from South Korea to Singapore to New Zealand – gives Australia useful points of reference. But there is great resistance to this, presumably as it would undermine the idea that poor relations are inevitable, or all China's fault."

Tyler notes that New Zealand still has a strong relationship with China despite it being a Five Eyes partner, criticising the Middle Kingdom on its treatment of the Uighurs and activities in Hong Kong, and stopping Huawei from having a role in its 5G network.

"One lesson is that New Zealand appears to put diplomacy at the centre of foreign policy rather than privileging security and defence," she says. 

"Diplomacy starts from realism: accepting that you're unlikely to be able to change the basic nature of other countries and trying to get the best for your country that you can."

Finally, Tyler says New Zealand's historical arrangements have influenced its current approaches. For example, New Zealand has had to develop a more independent foreign policy because it was frozen out of the ANZUS alliance after banning US nuclear ships. 

"New Zealand has brought biculturalism into its foreign policy in a way that Australia can only dream of," she says before referring to a speech by Mahuta in which the minister talks about New Zealand's identity being drawn from its indigenous heritage and Western institutions.

"There's a lot there for Australia to reflect on. Last week New Zealand received its best-ever placing in an international index of soft power, partly on the back of its well-publicised performance handling COVID-19 and the 'Jacinda factor'," Tyler writes.

"Other countries think they have something to learn from New Zealand. Maybe Australia might too."