Gillard given unique chance to advance 'shared future'

Fran O’Sullivan: New Zealand has accorded Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard a singular honour with her invitation to address the NZ Parliament next Wednesday - the first foreign leader to do so.

This landmark event in the history of New Zealand-Australian relations will have great ceremonial and symbolic significance.

But tempting as it may be for Gillard to focus on the usual (easy) transtasman cliches - the big brother/little brother friendly rivalry, our shared Anzac tradition where we have "spilt blood" together on foreign battlefields, and, each other's blood when it comes to rugby - we should expect her to deliver much more than conventional bromides.

New Zealand and Australia are at a crunch point.

Nearly 600,000 New Zealand-born Kiwis now live in Australia where they have a higher participation rate in the Australian labour force than people born there.

From the perspective of the New Zealand taxpayer, Australia's gain is clearly New Zealand's loss given the mega investment New Zealand has spent educating the many who have voted with their feet for a better life across the Tasman.

Australia has also invested large in New Zealand and now dominates much of our commercial sphere including the media industry which shapes perceptions, banking, which underpins New Zealand commerce, and the supermarkets where we get our basics.

These two significant shifts have gathered pace in the past 10 years putting the two nations inexorably on the path to a shared future.

So, it's not surprising that John Key has signalled his Government wants to advance the single market concept by removing remaining barriers to transtasman trade. Nor is it surprising that New Zealand is moving towards greater interoperability with Australia on vital security and defence issues.

As a nation we can no longer afford our isolation as the so-called "last bus stop on the planet". This country is too indebted now to hold on to any illusory pretensions of going it alone.

Gillard has a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the type of leadership that acknowledges New Zealand's strengths and what this country brings to the bilateral relationship.

Admittedly, her predecessor Kevin Rudd got the invitation to speak to the NZ Parliament first. And if Gillard hadn't slipped a rather sharp dagger between his ribs just before he was due to fly to Wellington last year to deliver what insiders billed as a "Kevin" - a magisterial speech by a prime minister who had more than a taste for the Olympian heights of the world stage - her place in New Zealand's official history would be lesser.

Irrespective of the fundamental personality differences the pair exhibit: Rudd - well-versed in international affairs - Gillard - a party backroom specialist; the 'ginga ninja' does not display Rudd's rather unfortunate tin ear when it comes to transtasman relationships.

It was Gillard who led a posse of Australian Labor Cabinet Ministers over here after Rudd - off politicking elsewhere in the world - ducked attendance at a major Australian New Zealand leadership forum.

Now that Gillard has our attention, she must leverage the goodwill she has already built.

It's instructive that while the previous Liberal Government initiated single market talks with Helen Clark's Labour Government, the Liberals balked when it came to bringing the two countries together behind a common border. The proposal which was dubbed "fly domestic" excited business people but the Australian political elites believed New Zealand was too lax on the security front to trust the Kiwis to reliably police the common border.

But the ground is shifting. At the Australian High Commission's Australia Day bash a couple of weeks ago, visiting Cabinet Minister Simon Crean floated the notion that it was time for the two nations to advance as partners on the trade front.

Crean - a previous Trade Minister - has been a strong advocate for increased ties. He's said the two countries are getting to the point where they should move towards a customs union, which in practice would mean a common Australasian tariff for goods coming into both countries and also sharing trade representation offshore.

Such unions are common elsewhere in the world. But even though New Zealand and Australia formed one of the first comprehensive free trade agreements, others have since leap-frogged.

The Key Government has already signalled that it wishes to further the single market concept by appointing Martyn Dunne as our next Ambassador to Canberra.

Dunne, a former career soldier, is currently Comptroller of Customs and chief executive of the NZ Customs Service.

As such, he is ideally placed to shepherd New Zealand through this next phase.

But for that to happen, the politicians must first make their own vital steps.

If Gillard can do that, she will have a much bigger place in our history than a mere footnote.

UPDATE: Greens block Gillard speech to Parliament