NZ-AUSTRALIA/CER, 1997-1980From chapter 8 of the memoir Compass Points
Back to 1977, and my head office job in the ministry. Australia was the other major concern. Unlike the United States our relationship with our neighbour did not pose immediate issues needing resolution, but the year certainly foreshadowed that something was brewing. The relationship centred on trade, a field in which I made no claims to be an expert.
In my first months in the job two episodes that were portents of change were the visit to Canberra by Sir Frank Holmes and a meeting in Wellington of NAFTA, the New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement. Sir Frank was an eminent New Zealand economist, an academic, a consultant and an author. He talked in Canberra to the departmental heads dealing with industry, trade and foreign policy and returned with a detailed report saying that they were thinking radically about changing our NAFTA. They speculated about a customs union and such things. His report was circulated around the economic departments and I left it in my in-tray wondering if anyone else in the interdepartmental system would find it as interesting as I did.
At the following NAFTA meeting, where I sat on the delegation pretty much as an observer since all the running was made by our Department of Trade and Industry, I heard two days of debate about the access volumes of particular goods, roofing tiles, leather wallets and suchlike. I did not find it rewarding and I did not feel the New Zealand delegation was negotiating well, since Australia had a number of grievances about our access arrangements for their goods which our side seemed simply to dismiss. I sensed the Australians’ frustration.
Then the ministry higher up decided it would be a good idea if the minister gave a series of speeches on major foreign policy issues. I was assigned to be scribe. It was too soon for me after my return from Rome and my thoughts on many issues, including Australia, were still ill-formed. With the pressure of work I fell behind and in the end one day walked out of the office and stayed home until I had finished some drafts.
These went to Merv Norrish, the deputy secretary to whom I reported. On the whole they went through smoothly enough but one about Australia came back with the insertion, ‘Australia matters more to New Zealand than any other country.’ Normally I was unfussed about changes to my drafts made by my superiors, but this prompted me to call at Merv’s office. ‘We can’t say this,’ I protested.
‘Why not, it’s true isn’t it?’ was his response. I agreed that was probably the case, although I wasn’t much into ranking our important allies and trading partners. ‘But I still see no merit in saying it out loud.’ I felt it was giving away too much negotiating coin, and could lead to our being taken for granted. The words stayed in. I hoped the minister might baulk at saying them, but they were read and widely noted, becoming the most memorable feature of the speech series. I suppose in the long run they did no harm and they at least gave the speeches some press coverage which my words did not.
Then it was decided that Brian Talboys, in his capacity as deputy prime minister, should make a major visit to Australia, calling at the state capitals as well as Canberra. There were a variety of motives. It was mainly to reinforce to Australia the importance that we attached to it, and in pursuit of this he would deliver major speeches to influential organisations like the National Press Club and the Manufacturers’ Federation, broadly staking out the proposition that New Zealand and Australia were in the same boat relative to the rest of the world and that New Zealand was ready to do its part to strengthen links at all levels. There would be meetings with business leaders and parliamentarians as well as ministers. Perhaps those issues Frank Holmes had raised could be explored.
The intention with the state governments was to have them see the merits of trade and purchase arrangements with New Zealand. There was a generalised objective of raising New Zealand’s profile with the Australian population. And there was an unspoken but widely recognised attempt to circumvent the apparent animosity between the prime ministers of the two countries, Rob Muldoon and Malcolm Fraser. There was immense planning required to realise all this, but I was not to see this out, at least from a Wellington perspective.
The proposition was put to me that I should go to Canberra as deputy high commissioner. The high commissioner, Laurie Francis, was from the National Party, formerly chairman of the party’s Otago-Southland branch before taking up the position in Australia. So the deputy’s position, as it had been in Rome, was the senior career position in the office. If Australia really was more important to New Zealand than any other country, it was obviously a good career move. At home we felt, not entirely accurately as it turned out, that Canberra would be an easy transition for the children, and so I accepted.
I completed my year in the division feeling something was going to break, probably positively, in our relations with Australia, but it was hard to pin it down. Perhaps the Talboys’ visit would reveal it, perhaps not.
In preparing for Canberra I entered a field that had a huge bearing on the rest of my life. I was looking at the money flows between the two countries and saw that it was substantially greater in transactions called ‘invisibles’ than in the areas we focused on, trade in goods. Remittances of company profits and tourism expenditures were important parts of the invisibles. To get myself briefed I widened the range of people I was calling on to include businessmen like Ron Brierley, who may have been bemused at my questions about whether he remitted the profits of his Australian companies back to New Zealand, and if not, what were the impediments to doing so, but he took the session seriously. Once in Canberra with my feet under the desk for a while I decided that tourism was the component of the invisibles that was the most open to influence.
But in Wellington it was having the packers in again and all the disruption of preparing to shift a family overseas. It probably would have been better for us all if we had had two years back, as our previous Wellington stints had allowed, but it had been a good year and we looked forward to the excitement of a new capital.
From chapter 9 of the memoir Compass Points
We rented out the Wilton house again and the five of us set out for Sydney and then Canberra at the end of 1977. We went straight into the New Zealand government-owned house that had been occupied by my predecessors in the comfortable and convenient suburb of Red Hill. It was a single-storey bungalow at 6 Charlotte St, an address I came to be hesitant to offer out loud, because it invariably caused mirth among Australians who heard the New Zealand pronunciation of ‘six’ as ‘sex’.
We had thought that the move to Australia would be gentle on the children, with such apparent similarity of social norms and education systems, but it didn’t work out as easily as that. It was another shift, another challenge of settling in, another need to make new friends, a different syllabus, and different transition ages from intermediate to secondary school. It reinforced the difficulties of the peripatetic foreign affairs life for children, and we became increasingly conscious of the benefits of the stability they were missing by not having a childhood and schooling in one, or at least fewer places. Nevertheless they survived and have flourished since.
We loved the house and neighbourhood. It had deckings front and back, for sun or shade, as we wished, for any time of the day. We had a retractable canvas awning installed over the front deck, and grew grape vines on the pergola over the back area, creating a favourite outdoors eating place, with dappled sunlight coming through the vine leaves in the best Italian manner.
And it had a table that seated 16. That was real evidence of creeping up the diplomatic scale! In Washington we could seat eight, and set up smaller tables if we needed more. In Rome we were 10. At high commissioner or ambassador level you could, in those days, assume 20 to 24 seats around the main table. We weren’t there yet. We used the whole 16 quite often, for senior officials, members of parliament, academics, representatives from other countries and many others.
Outside, the bird life was magnificent, compared with Wellington and Rome. Large flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos regularly descended on the suburb, and brightly coloured rosellas and lorikeets and other species were common. But if Australian birds win hands down on colour and numbers, they come in last on any musical scale for sound. The expression ‘bird song’ cannot apply to their raucous cawing and shrieking. We sometimes heard the amazing human-like laugh of the kookaburra.
We came to feel the pull of the Australian trees and landscape too. The soft blue green of the gum trees against the soft brown and reds of the grasses and rocks made an attractive combination, a gentleness of colour that belied the harshness of the overwhelming heat and dryness. We learnt that the trees were spaced as they were because of the need for their root systems to avoid overlapping, since each needed all the water that the ground could provide.
That spacing, a dramatic difference from New Zealand’s dense, rain-sodden bush, was most evident from the air. Aboriginal paintings vividly captured this pointillist dotting of the trees on the landscape, as though they too had been able to look down from a helicopter. And on the landscape kangaroos were never far away. We knew we were in Australia.
We loved the climate, probably the best we have lived in. It was dry and clear, without the humidity of Washington. In winter nights it was cold enough to cause ice on the windscreen after a dinner party ending at 11 p.m. or midnight, but that was hardly an issue. Over much of the year the temperature was 18°c at seven in the morning, a temperature we were pleased to reach at midday in Wellington.
For Rachel, not having my security of a New Zealand office every day, there was a challenge to make new friends and establish a social life. She was keen on working, as she had done in Samoa and in our spells in New Zealand, and after a time was fortunate to be offered a position at the Australian National University, ANU, researching for a professor whose job seemed to cover the whole spectrum of how global society had evolved and worked. It opened my eyes to fields I had not previously considered … perhaps a subject to revert to.
For relaxation I bought a yacht for sailing, along with many others, on Lake Burley-Griffin in the middle of Canberra. I did not get on it regularly nor entice the boys often enough but I enjoyed sailing without ever mastering it. And there was an occasional game of tennis, usually at the court at the high commissioner’s residence. For short holidays we found a comfortable motel on the nearest piece of coast, Batemans Bay.
The New Zealand high commission was an attractive modern building to work in, and my office had a view over the lake. It was a quick drive from home and a quick drive to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the other main arms of government. It was decorated by a pleasing array of paintings and other art by New Zealand’s best. So it was all good there. In work terms the office comprised three main branches, dealing with foreign affairs, defence and trade, as well as an administrative staff serving all three. I was the head of the foreign affairs branch and also ‘head of chancery’, which meant responsibility for overall office management. I assisted the high commissioner, Laurie Francis, with co-ordinating the three branches. The three heads of these and Laurie met once a week in what we, but not he, called the Gang of Four — this was 1978 and the Cultural Revolution in China was still fresh. As far as I could tell it — the office, not China — was an amicable workplace without the tensions, rivalries or personality clashes that can so easily disrupt a small office.
In the division of work the high commissioner dealt with cabinet ministers and top business people and others, and I dealt with a number of members of parliament and backbenchers. We (Rachel and I) had a lot of fun with two Tasmanian MPs, Michael Hodgson and Bruce Goodluck (‘The Little Tassie Battler’), the two as unalike as can be, one tall and elegant and the other a short and tough rough diamond, but great mates in their common cause. Neal Blewett from South Australia was another we came to know. We quite regularly saw Victorian senator Austin Lewis, mainly through Rachel’s friendship with his wife, and a number of others. We rarely lobbied parliamentarians direct but it was good for a few of them to be up with New Zealand perspectives and for us to hear some inside stories. My main beat, however, was the Canberra officialdom.
I was privileged to have a strong Foreign Affairs contingent on the staff: a counsellor and two or three others at first or second secretary level. At different times they included Nancy Mullins, Witi Ihimaera, Tim Groser, Mac Price and Alex Matheson. I focused mainly on Australia-New Zealand issues and the others on various multilateral matters that needed co-ordination with the Australians — the United Nations, GATT and trade issues, the South Pacific and so on.
DFA had an open door policy to us and included many able and congenial colleagues. The merits of a career service, which led to former contacts on shared postings coming together in a head office environment, was underlined. This was in an unspoken way true of the future too — if you hadn’t yet been together at the Australian and New Zealand embassies in Paris or Tokyo, the odds were quite high that you would be sometime, somewhere in the coming years. But I also found over the first year a steady need to strengthen contacts with other departments including that of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, Trade and Resources, Immigration, Science and others, such was the intensity and breadth of the bilateral relationship.
An early task was to pick up on the proposed visit by the deputy prime minister, Brian Talboys. A new component arose when the Assistant Secretary in Wellington, Bryce Harland, rang to say that the government was planning to give, during the visit, a major artwork to the government and people of Australia. It was the huge unstretched canvas Victory over death 2 by Colin McCahon, dominated by the giant block letters I AM. Bryce said it was necessary to know in advance, before the idea was carried further, that the gift would be well received. He recounted a story about how some years earlier the French government had given a painting to the National Gallery of Victoria and that gallery had refused to hang it, creating a diplomatic incident. So, would I seek reassurances about that.
I duly made an appointment and met with James Mollison, director of the National Gallery of Australia. He was more positive than we could have wished. He was adamant that if the Australian government wished to give away a painting as important as that, he would raise heaven and earth to stop it from doing so. He agreed to both my propositions, that if the gift went ahead, he would hang it in a suitable place and would brief the Australian art media about the great merits of the painting.
So the plan progressed, and there have been repeated stories out of Wellington, which I can’t for a moment validate, about how Prime Minister Muldoon approved the gift with the notion that it would make his deputy Brian Talboys a laughing stock in Australia — and perhaps in both countries.
The painting arrived in the high commission, rolled up (it was never framed) after crossing the Tasman by RNZAF aircraft. The only part of the high commission with a large enough clear space to unroll it was in Laurie’s office, and that is where it was exposed. Laurie was horrified, and was instantly in the Muldoon camp — ‘We can’t give that to Australia, we’ll be the laughing stock.’
But we did, and it was hung in a temporary home in the main lobby of the (old) Australian Parliament. I felt Brian Talboys was himself pretty doubtful about the whole exercise too, at the gifting ceremony, but it went off well enough. James Mollison lived up to his word. He briefed the art critics of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Age and other media about the importance of the work, and each gave it favourable reviews.
We knew it had made it in the public consciousness when the weekly Bulletin news journal printed a cartoon of two bleary MPs passing the painting late at night, one saying to the other, ‘Gosh, is it 1 a.m. already?’ There was no explanation, the journal assuming its readers would know from the general media coverage what it was about. Subsequently James hung the painting in the main room for large contemporary art in the new National Gallery of Australia, alongside Australia’s most famous art acquisition, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, where it remained for many years, a triumph for New Zealand.
I might add that I too had reservations, but of a different sort. I did not — and still do not — think that giving national art treasures to Australia was worthwhile. My thoughts were a bit along the lines of those a year earlier over the ministerial speech words, ‘means more to us than any other country’ — a risk of looking too eager to please, wagging our tail too much to be taken seriously.
I made a second call on Mollison before Talboys arrived, when the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Frank Corner, came to Canberra to check out the arrangements and asked to meet the director. During that conversation Mollison said there were two New Zealand artists he really admired, the other besides McCahon a woman artist of the 1930s who painted stylised figures. I ventured Lois White and he agreed that was the name. Thirty-five years later, in Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey, I read that before the Talboys’ visit Mollison wrote to Muldoon confirming his admiration for the McCahon painting, and then later visited New Zealand and purchased two Lois White paintings, presumably for the National Gallery.
The main themes of the Talboys’ visit were played out with mixed results. He was very well received in the state capitals as well as in Canberra, and went off at the end on a private visit to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s rural estate at Nareen in Victoria. This resulted in a stitched-together and much publicised Nareen Statement. In this general and atmospheric sense the visit was clearly successful, raising Australian awareness of New Zealand and of the seriousness with which this country regarded its relationship with Australia. The main thrust of the Nareen Statement was that the two countries should work together more on international trade and foreign policy issues.
But there was an unsatisfactory side to it too: the New Zealand position on what it wanted in the future was not clearly articulated. This was most apparent in a meeting with Federal politicians at parliament. Brian made a passionate case that we — the two countries — must do better, but had no real answers to the questions that followed from the parliamentarians’ ready agreement with that: so what should we aim for? We need to change what to what? His speeches too emphasised our common ground, going as far back as Australia and New Zealand being part of Gondwanaland — not my drafting. This absence of specifics about the next steps fed through to the Nareen Statement which, on trade, simply confirmed that the intention of NAFTA was the progressive removal of barriers to trade, and placed greater emphasis on joint dealings with the rest of the world.
I came away from the visit feeling it had been great scene-setter but that little by way of practical advances would come from it. Something big was still waiting in the wings, due to break out. It was hard to predict what shape this would take, and it took another year to be realised.
I travelled around Australia less than I wished — that was the high commissioner’s role. But at one point I decided to find out about the Australian review of its constitution, to assess its implications for New Zealand. A conference on the subject was held in Perth, and I decided to take a few days off and attend. Rachel came and we agreed to travel out, but thankfully not back, by train, the famous Indian-Pacific Express. We travelled to Sydney to pick it up so that we could say we had travelled the whole distance across Australia from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean coasts.
The journey took about three days and nights. I was glad that I was dog-tired and could use it for recovery, otherwise the boredom would have been total. Crossing the Nullarbor plain, I reckon the vegetation did change a bit, from one type of two-foot sagebush to another, about every 400-500 miles. I found that the name of this vast barren land was not Aboriginal as I had surmised, but Latin: from nullus arbor, the place of no trees.
The train itself was comfortable enough, and exactly as in the brochure, with one exception — in the brochure it was still, in reality it moved. So while there was indeed a lounge and reading room carriage, just as shown, reading on the rocking train was more than I could master. There was a dining car, just like the picture, except that the wine in the glasses was constantly swaying and at risk of spilling, a good excuse to drink it up. The conference itself was a lesson in how to engage a broad and informed community in a deliberative debate on constitutional development. No firm decisions were reached, but issues were identified and clarified, options narrowed and agreement reached to have another in five years’ time.
We did as a family have one big holiday in the pattern of those in Washington and Rome. We set out by an inland route north through NSW and across into Queensland and further north up to the Whitsunday Passage. At a lunch break at an isolated café in central-north NSW, we were delivered a tirade against the Aboriginals, and a wish that they had all been shot earlier. It was an archaic residue of a former time, and I have never met any Australian since with that sort of attitude, but it was a sharp reminder of an immensely difficult past in this vast interior.
After about three days of endless driving we reached Airlie Beach, where we had booked an apartment high above the coast. The main object of the exercise was to get out to the Great Barrier Reef and do some snorkelling. On day one the boats going to the reef were cancelled due to bad weather. Day two was the same. And day three … when this happened again on the fourth and last full day, we agreed it was time for drastic action. We knew there were float planes that took passengers out to the reef, but had avoided them because of cost. No longer. They took only the pilot and three others so for the five of us we needed two planes. It all worked a treat.
We had marvellous views from the air, and eventually landed in a turquoise dream-world rather like a tropical lagoon. The pilots paddled the planes to tie up at buoys, and we went over the side into another world of vibrant-coloured coral, tropical fish, and sunlight penetrating deep below the surface. I have always liked snorkelling but this was the best. It was a long trip home, this time along the coast, but totally worth it.
Back in Canberra we found time to look at tourism, not a normal topic for a diplomatic office. Alex Matheson had joined us as counsellor and he too was interested enough to put some quality time into appraising the Australian tourism market for New Zealand and New Zealand’s effort in it. Our report was sufficient to galvanise the head of the Tourist and Publicity Department in Wellington, Mike Roberts, recently appointed from Trade and Industry, and his senior promotions man, Tony Shrimpton, to pay us a visit. We reached a sort of accommodation but we still left them with our view that tourism was too important a subject for us to keep out of, and if we felt in the future it was still not being pursued optimally, we would intervene again. Mike Roberts was tragically killed in the Mt Erebus air accident in Antarctica a year or so later.
In my second year in Canberra another ANZUS Council meeting was held. It was my third and I had now been to one in each of the treaty countries. As with that in Wellington two years before, this one focused on the Cold War situation, and brought rich insights, particularly from the American delegation.
But I remember a social embarrassment more than the substance. Brian Talboys as Minister of Foreign Affairs came over leading our delegation, and he and Laurie decided that New Zealand should host a lunch for the three delegations. The residence could not seat enough visitors at one table, so two long tables were set up for the occasion. Laurie worked out a seating order that had Brian as the main host in the centre of one table and himself at the centre of the other. He put on Brian’s right the leader of the American delegation, Christopher Warren, and on his own right at the second table the Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock.
This layout might have looked logical on paper, but the effect was that Brian had Warren Christopher all to himself, and Peacock, who was only interested in Christopher, had Laurie. Peacock was visibly angry and restless, and at real risk of walking out, and I at the second table was on edge over whether to intervene and who to shift when it abruptly calmed down. Andrew decided to write the lunch off and to entertain the second tier people around him,
which he did very well.
I don’t profess to have come to know Andrew Peacock well, but we were in close contact on one or two other occasions. We had a joint ministerial get-together in the Bay of Islands, with Rawdon Dalrymple and one other Australian accompanying him, and Merv Norrish and me accompanying Brian. It was an opportunity to appraise him in depth about New Zealand’s views on Trans- Tasman trade, which at that stage still related to gripes about how NAFTA was working and not about replacing it, and which although not in his portfolio he needed to know from us as well as from his own side’s briefings.
He was certainly good company, telling us that whenever he was ear-bashed over the phone by a constituent or similar and wanted to hang up, he always pressed the off button when he and not the caller was talking. By the time the caller rang back to say, ‘We must have been cut off,’ the private secretary was primed to answer that the minister had been called out of the office. He recounted also that when he was in opposition, and it became clear that his party would win the next elections and that he would be the next foreign minister, one or two officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) would slip him confidential papers. They were the first people he sacked after the election. ‘If they’ll do the dirty on one minister they’ll do it on another.’ Not impeccable logic but an understandable reaction from a very astute politician.
A NAFTA ministerial meeting took place in Wellington in April 1979, a year after Brian Talboys’ big visit to Australia. At it, the Australian trade minister Doug Anthony proposed that the two countries start a study of some form of closer economic association. Under NAFTA we were grinding to a halt. Others have told the story of discussions on the plane when Anthony and his Secretary of Trade Jim Scully were flying to Wellington from Tokyo. I’m sure they groaned at each other at the thought of the agenda ahead of them. They apparently agreed to propose that we deal with our trade issues in a fundamentally different manner, to have a clean break. Jim Scully’s reflections to Frank Holmes two years previously about a customs union and other options no doubt had an airing. In Wellington, at various meetings and dinners, they argued for a review and won Muldoon’s buy-in to
Australia’s motives seemed straightforward at the time, but still can cause at least academic speculation. NAFTA weariness was a prime driver: the negotiations were interminable beyond the importance of the products concerned in any wider trade context and did not provide a good basis for looking ahead longer-term. There was a gentle concern that New Zealand’s growth rate wasn’t looking too good and its balance of payments deficits might be getting troublesome, but that was never a driver for Australia to the extent the subsequent New Zealand view attributed to it, that Australia felt New Zealand was becoming a basket case and early trade support might avoid the need for a later bailout. Indeed there was distant evidence of the opposite, that Australia was concerned that New Zealand was doing too well out of NAFTA.
Then there were general thoughts that the world’s markets were consolidating into regional trading blocs and the international trade environment was becoming increasingly competitive. An Australian deal with New Zealand would represent some level of strengthening both countries’ positions relative to this.
In any event I felt some real excitement, and diplomats are cautious about such emotions, when the cable came in from Wellington advising us of the events. The time to realign Australia– New Zealand relations had come at last. Laurie had been in Wellington and at the key meetings and was able to flesh a few things out. It was clearly going to mean an intensive time for the high commission and I was pleased to throw myself into it.
The Canberra bureaucracy took the exercise very seriously and applied very substantial resources to it. A new office of Special Trade Representations, loosely modelled on the American office of the same name, and headed by Philip Flood, assumed the coordinating role between DFAT, Trade and Resources, Industry and Commerce, Agriculture, Treasury, Customs and other agencies. They set up three working parties to puzzle over the implications of the many issues that the initiative raised. Laurie saw ministers from time to time, while I dealt with the departmental permanent heads and deputies, and others in the high commission with the many other layers of officials working on a wide range of issues. We had constant calls on officials at their offices, sometimes a working lunch, sometimes a quick or not so quick word at a reception — all options for contact were engaged.
A rather hair-raising episode took place when I decided we needed to know more about the Australian Treasury’s view, and so took the Secretary John Stone to lunch at the Commonwealth Club. After a while he started asking questions about New Zealand’s economic position. What was our GDP, our balance of trade and invisibles, the exchange rate? And plenty more. I wish I had recorded the list of them. I don’t think I spilled my soup, and I’m glad I don’t have a note of my answers. But within a generous margin of error they were in a ball-park to meet his purposes.
He took from his pocket the classic used envelope and on its back did some scribbles and equations. I wish even more I had been able to keep that. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it seems to me that for New Zealand to export successfully to Australia, it needs a discount of about 20% on the Australian dollar, so I don’t think we should go for a common currency.’ To the best of my knowledge neither side again raised the issue of having a common currency, at least in my time, and so the matter rested.
I could not help but idly watch the exchange rate and New Zealand’s export performance to Australia over the decades that followed this, and found, until very recent years, a quite consistent pattern that when our dollar fell below 80 cents Australian our exporters did well; when it went much above that rate they struggled. The issue of a common currency has come up from time to time since, notably when a group of New Zealand economists produced a report in the mid-1990s which came out in favour, but supporters in that survey — New Zealand exporters to Australia — seemed to do so for a marginal reason: they felt the New Zealand dollar was subject to too many wild swings and a common currency would make it more stable. More recently still there seems to be a consensus, particularly in the wake of the Euro crisis of around 2011–2013, that any shared currency is likely to be successful only when there is fiscal union, when governments co-ordinate their budgets and taxes, and despite the long-run success of the Closer Economic Relations (CER) initiative, integration at that level even now seems a long way off for Australia and New Zealand.
Back to 1979. Various activities, besides all the desk work by officials, took place over the middle of the year, including a session between the two prime ministers at a Commonwealth Heads of government meeting in Lusaka and positive public references to the trade review in speeches by Hugh Templeton, New Zealand’s Minister of Customs and a long-time advocate of closer political and economic relations with Australia. Within seven months of the Wellington start it was agreed that an unprecedented meeting of the departmental heads on both sides should be held, again in Wellington. Eight Australian permanent heads crossed the Tasman, with many other Australian officials, and me, for two intensive days.
The venue in part reflected a consistent thread in Australian comments that New Zealand should lead, for fear that the New Zealand public, and perhaps New Zealand politicians, would feel bulldozed by a bigger Australia into an unwanted arrangement.
For all that, in the privacy of the meetings, Australia did lead, putting forward rather more ideas and considered thoughts over the two days on how the concept might take form. But there was real progress: the statement at the end of it put in train more specific studies looking at eliminating all tariff and non-tariff barriers between the two countries within five to seven years, of harmonising tariff barriers relative to third countries, and of eliminating or harmonising industry assistance programmes.
Work intensified after that and included a string of New Zealand officials, such as Noel Lough, the Treasury Secretary, coming to Canberra to seek Australian views first hand. I flew to the Australian Labor Party annual conference on Adelaide and briefed the leader Bill Hayden and his shadow cabinet.
I started to wind down in late 1980 because I was due for an early departure from the post but by that time it was clear that the framework of a new agreement was in place. It would be called Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Agreement or similar (ANCERTA, or CER in short form); it would not modify NAFTA but supersede it entirely; it would not take the form of a common market, free trade area or a customs union as these were classically defined but be a hybrid, a unique arrangement specific to New Zealand and Australia’s particular needs; it would have a focus on eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers but would go wider and look at industry assistance, government purchasing and other aspects of each country’s domestic economy; it would not include monetary or fiscal policy; it would be outward looking, not ‘Fortress Australasia,’ avoiding rules that would weaken trade links with other countries; it would not address a trade relationship with the Pacific Island states, which would be dealt with in another time and context … it all looked good, even though the reality is that the detailed negotiations took another three years.
My own life was by then in a bit of turmoil. The ministry had told me that it wanted to post me to be ambassador in Indonesia, an important assignment with many attractions. A key Australian contact, Rawdon Dalrymple, was heading there as Australian ambassador, and I knew a senior Indonesian foreign affairs officer, Ali Alatas (later to become foreign minister), as a colleague from Washington days where he had been counsellor in the Indonesian embassy. Rachel knew his wife June better. But there seemed not to be an English school for Gillian, and we remained in the camp that regarded boarding school in New Zealand as a last resort. However we agreed and the processes with the Indonesian government were put in train.
Around the same time a position outside the ministry, of head of the Tourist and Publicity Department, was advertised, a consequence of the tragic Air New Zealand crash in the Antarctic on 30 November 1979. I let the Commission responsible for the appointment know of my interest and filled in the relevant form.
I was called to Wellington for an interview before a panel, part of which included an exchange with a conservationist about how tourism growth would (in his view), or would not (in mine), despoil the South Island resort town of Queenstown. I argued that if Queenstown grew into the sort of international ski and year-round resort that other countries had and New Zealand then lacked, that would only be a good thing, for New Zealanders as well as tourists to enjoy, and there were plenty of other small towns that would retain whatever 1970s character they might have. At least I exuded enthusiasm for the country’s tourism potential.
It was difficult back in Canberra packing to leave but not knowing whether we were going to Jakarta or Wellington. My diplomatic colleagues started farewell dinner parties for us after the word got out about the Jakarta posting, but finally advice of the tourism appointment came through. With much embarrassment I rang the minister in the Indonesian embassy, who was hosting a dinner for us three days later, to say that I was not going to his country after all. He graciously continued with the function, which was quite a riotous affair, although I’m sure that no one in the diplomatic corps understood my move to tourism.
Our stay in Canberra made me aware of the complexities in trying to nail down the differences, in the sense of policies and attitudes, between New Zealand and Australia. In many respects these are deep, as numerous authors have explored, reflecting different histories, geographies and other factors, but in our time rarely surfaced. Partly they were muted by the sorts of Australians who were attracted to living in Canberra and working for the federal government and ANU. In foreign policy the differences were muted because of the Cold War and the alliance we shared with the United States: we could not have contemplated the divergence that came just a few years later with New Zealand’s nuclear-free policies and ejection from the functioning of the ANZUS Treaty. Nevertheless the proximity of Asia to Australia, with Indonesia like an umbrella over the top of the country, was always in the background of Australian policy, compared with the freedom New Zealand perceived because of distance.
Thus ended a truncated career in diplomacy. It had been stimulating and, I hoped, useful for the country in a quiet way. Certainly I had worked hard at it. It is difficult, though, to assess it in measurable terms. I have sometimes felt, looking back, that diplomats can work for years, say on a bilateral relationship or a topic of United Nations consideration, and not have an identifiable achievement at the end of it, only a constructive but ill-defined contribution. It is hard to get full recognition for that. It is a positive side of this that the New Zealand foreign service is good at building up small credits with other countries, something like the way the Japanese do at a personal level.
There was always debate over whether professional diplomats were needed in the top jobs overseas, or whether these could be done as well or better by politicians or business people appointed to be an ambassador. The odds favour the professional, in that they are more likely to know the range of avenues available or the pitfalls to avoid. But that was not universally true. Some outside appointees did great jobs, as I have noted with my experience with Phil Holloway in Rome — and a few career professionals were, if not incompetent, then at least lazy.
I have recently seen the assertion in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s autobiography that ‘diplomats, for their day-to-day work in foreign capitals, rely upon ministerial visits to open doors and develop relationships …’ That is a singular perspective and I hope the descriptions of my own experience show a different situation. Ministerial visits had their own merits, but they were not needed for these purposes.
It became apparent over a variety of embassy and high commission experiences that everyone in the office, from the third secretary to the ambassador, had useful roles to play in making New Zealand’s case or obtaining information we were seeking. The notion that you need to go to the top to get decisions is simply untrue in very many cases: the person at the top usually knows how to delegate, knows how their own national decision-making systems work, or knows when not to make a decision until they have advice. Plenty of significant decisions are made by middleranking officers of the governments involved.
The autobiography of an eminent Australian diplomat of the 1960s and ’70s, Alan Renouf, dwells on the regrettable tendency of embassies to develop into microcosms of their home capital, with all that s that implied for bureaucratic rivalries. He thought in Tokyo the US embassy was a little Washington and that the larger Australian embassies in various countries could never throw off the scent of Canberra rivalries. It is part of my good feelings about working in New Zealand’s overseas relations that I never felt there was any issue with that. Each department represented in an embassy had its own starting point and perspective, but it always ended up quite readily that these differences contributed to a constructive agreed approach, or to be irrelevant to higher policy outside of the specialised field.
I have also not felt that representing a small and isolated country was a constraint of any great substance. Partly we represented an unusual sort of neutrality: despite our very strong alliance commitments, through ANZUS, SEATO, the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence structure and the like, we always cushioned this by a willingness to listen to other parties, to take a principled approach to most issues and to pursue our own interests as we perceived them pretty openly and without too much intrigue and deception. Our smallness reinforced our nonthreatening power base and actually helped with this. It softened our developed country status relative to the developing and nonaligned countries. This was further fostered by our odd-manout status within the developed world, and our symmetry with developing countries, because of our economic dependence on commodity trading.
Perhaps our national characteristics of a sense of fairness and a certain commitment to egalitarianism and the equality of nations helped too. For one reason or another we were about as nonaligned as an aligned country could be and yet within the aligned we were right in the inner circle. It is a tribute to our foreign policy makers and implementers that we were able to walk so confidently either side of that fence as circumstances required. And there is power of a sort to be exercised through good ideas and values, independently of size.
Much later, reflecting on the satisfaction of having worked in diplomacy, I realised that much of it must have rested on the pillars of New Zealand itself, a country you could be proud to represent. Its competence and values were easy to promote, always defensible and appreciated by most other countries. I cannot imagine getting satisfaction from representing a country where misrule, corruption and other negatives were the order of the day.
A lasting benefit has been friendships, many of which I still maintain. I am very lucky that colleagues from those days overlook that I jumped ship early and much later are still comfortable with including me in a variety of their activities. It is always refreshing and agreeable to be with them.