Simon Draper: Australia’s Asia debate worryingly polarising

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.


Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.

OPINION: I’m often annoyed when I hear people claim “New Zealand is lucky”.

It’s as if we have somehow stumbled upon this fortunate lifestyle most New Zealanders enjoy, or that our success internationally in innovation, sport, arts and science is mere chance.

Emirates Team New Zealand wasn’t “lucky”. They worked hard for, and deserved, their success.

Likewise, whatever luck we might have as a country is luck made through bold, difficult and brave policy decisions, and because of the hard work of countless, nameless New Zealanders.

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I make one exception to this “made our own luck” narrative though.

We are lucky we have Australia as a neighbour.

In my experience, it is a country of good people who generally do the right thing. As a diplomat representing New Zealand internationally for most of my adult life, I can vouch for the support Australia unflinchingly provides New Zealand offshore.

I know it is a national sport for us to chip away at Australia and find things we don’t like.

Fair enough (though it is embarrassing most of the time), but we shouldn’t be so small-minded as to miss the bigger picture.

We are one of the very few countries not to have had a war with our neighbour. That’s worth thinking about and being grateful for.

With this in mind, I spent a few days in Australia listening to their conversations about Asia, on the basis that the conversation there could well in turn cross the Tasman and turn up here.

I confess that I found the conversation very different to the one here in New Zealand.

On one hand, Australia’s Asia conversation, like the one here, is very focussed on China.

One of the underlying principles of Australian thinking – that China makes us rich; the United States keeps us safe – has taken a real knock from the emergence of Trump and concerns in the Australian system that this bedrock principle is not as strong as it once was.

This is a fact of life New Zealand had to get used to after the ANZUS fallout in the mid-1980s.

Add to this Australia’s geographic proximity and press coverage means the South China Sea issue is more front of mind for them than the occasional abstract debate here in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Australia’s political establishment is involved with what is largely a beltway issue, around the reported purchase of Australian political influence by Chinese businesspeople of both Chinese and Australian nationality.

This has then combined with reported increases in cyber-attacks from Asia against Australian businesses (the ongoing slump in iron ore exports to China has left some of the normally pro-business voices quite muted) and the turning down of a large infrastructure purchase in NSW on national security grounds.

The sum of all this is a very sharp debate in Australia about its relationship with Asia. That there is a debate is natural and, in its way, healthy.

But what was most troubling for me was how polarised the debate was.

The appetite for any real debate – for instance, how the Chinese tradition of guanxi engages with the Westminster parliamentary system – appeared almost totally absent.

New Zealand should learn from what’s going on in Australia and avoid such polarisation. We should be able to discuss calmly, rationally and respectfully our changing external environment and demographics.

Let’s ignore the usual dog whistles, but thoughtfully work out what works for us and what doesn’t; be clear about who we want to be and what we don’t.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation is prepared to be part of this important national discussion; are you?

Recently Prime Minister English described New Zealand’s foreign policy as one of ‘naive optimism’.

I hate to diverge from our Prime Minister’s view, but I would prefer New Zealand’s foreign policy was one of ‘thoughtful optimism’.

And to my Australian colleagues, “Thanks mate, helpful as always”.

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations, with a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to forge links to the region.

 – Stuff