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Professor hawks Kiwis a waltz with Matilda

LAST week six Royal New Zealand Air Force Sky Hawks arrived in WA to participate in a defence exercise that even included a French nuclear submarine.

Several years ago I saw them landing at Pearce airbase. Interestingly, they’re based in NSW, not Christchurch, Auckland, or Wellington, for that matter, showing that in a tiny way Anzac survives, 85 years on.

Few West Aussies com-ment on these flying visits.

Few ever comment on anything to do with New Zealand, except perhaps that they’ve been there skiing.

But slowly, bubbling along with little publicity here at least, the first moves of a possible Australian - New Zealand union, a mini-South Seas version of the European Union are being taken.

Yet we hear more of the European Union than the possibility of the latter, which, quite frankly, is far more important to us.

I only recently learnt of the budding Aussie-Kiwi unific-ation moves because, thank-fully, former Federal Labor MHR, Bob Catley, now Professor of Politics at Otago University (Dunedin) carried an article titled, “Will Australia and New Zealand Unite?” in Sydney monthly, Quadrant, (Jan/Feb, 2001).

It’s a thought-provoking piece, worth reading, and thinking about.

And it’s set for wider exposure since Professor Catley’s book, Waltzing with Matilda – Why NZ Should Join Australia, will be in bookshops this week and the Quadrant article is from a concluding chapter.

Prof. Catley surveys a gamut of complex issues needing considerable and careful thought and resolution before a union emerges.

We learn of surveys being conducted in New Zealand to gauge public opinion. A January 1998 Herald-Digipoll asked 640 Kiwis if they wanted to join Australia.

“More than eight out of 10 were against the idea,” he reports.

“This was true across-the-board: age, gender, income and location. Only 9 per cent of women said yes, compared with men at 19 per cent.”

But an August 1999 poll found 26 per cent of New Zealanders polled favoured union, so opinion seems set to oscillate.

A number of business organisations, including the Australia New Zealand Business Council, argue for closer relations. And recently New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark – who opposes union - signalled interest in discussing merging the Kiwi and Aussie dollars.

In June, Otago’s Foreign Policy School Program will host a conference titled; Australia and New Zealand – Moving Together or Drifting Apart, and it will be launched by New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Phil Goff.

It’s worth noting that before 1901 serious consideration was given to New Zealand joining the then proposed Australian Federation. If it had happened in the steam-ship age we would now have an Australasian Federation of seven states with a population of 24 million.

But it didn’t. Since then, especially over the past 25 years, closer economic ties have been established so the economies are, for all intents and purposes, now one.

Prof. Catley reminds us the Australian Constitution has a section (121) empowering Canberra to admit new states into the Commonwealth, and here’s where the starting point of a South Sea union after all complex political and other issues, that he examines, were democratically resolved.

“The basic terms of the agreement would need to be consistent with the 1901 Australian constitution, as amended by a century of practice, which still legally permits New Zealand to apply to join at any time,” he writes.

“Unification would add a population the size of Sydney with a high commitment to welfare, taxation, neutralism, and on the basis of the 1999 (NZ) election results, social democracy and higher taxes.”

It’s worth noting New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is closer to Canberra than Kalgoorlie, so the tyranny of distance is no barrier.

Distance, even in 1900, didn’t stop WA joining an east coast-dominated federation.

The New Zealand/Aust-ralian union issue is important to WA for many reasons.

First and foremost, both are islands of liberal democracy in a region of quite uncertain emerging democracies, so Australasia could become a model for democratic reform to neighbors, as Western Europe was to the Soviet Bloc for 45 years, leading to Poland’s Solidarity.

I’m told former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was once asked what he thought of such a union.

“It’d be just like having three Tasmanias,” he said.

Funny and true; truer than this Sydney super-centralist perhaps realised.

For WA, a federally integrated New Zealand could be a counterweight to Canberra’s constant drive to centralise, to hold sway over outlying states.

My guess is if Kiwis eventually joined Australia they’d expect – indeed, they’d understandably demand – a great degree of autonomy and the arrangement could become contagious, meaning states like WA, Tasmania and Queensland would find their longstanding healthy re-sistance to Canberra encroachment strengthened.

For that reason alone West Aussies – including our often lethargic business and political leaders – shouldn’t only welcome the union but should get involved in making it happen if Aussies and Kiwis are gauged to want it.

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