Australia's embattled prime minister got less, and more, than he bargained for during his quick visit to New Zealand over the weekend. Australia may have lost the World Cup cricket fixture to a rising New Zealand team, but Tony Abbott got a rare vote of confidence in his leadership style from his Kiwi counterpart John Key. Yet on the most urgent subject for trans-Tasman consultation — the response to ISIS — Mr Abbott and his colleagues may well be thinking that New Zealand's political leaders are collectively divided and individually confused.
The division is over whether New Zealand should send what the Key Government advertises as a training deployment to Iraq. The announcement of this decision, reported in these pages by Anna Powles, had been preceded by months of a painfully slow warm up act by a Government clearly uncomfortable about being seen to make any sort of direct contribution to combat. In prematurely ruling out a special forces role early on, the Government robbed itself of a contribution that might have been its most valuable. Mr Key's explanation of that limit – that this is Iraq's war to fight, and not New Zealand's – is an unconvincing balancing act born largely of domestic political calculations.
Abbott also had an audience with the leader of New Zealand's main opposition Labour Party (spelled with a 'u'; ie. correctly). The newly installed Andrew Little will certainly have grabbed the attention of many of his supporters by indicating that he told the Australian leader that the RAAF's air strikes against ISIL were a good idea. Here at least there seems to be some common ground with the National Party leadership. But the Labour leadership is opposed to the training mission, arguing that it is too small to make a difference and that New Zealand had no business propping up Iraq's armed forces, which have a track record of corruption and ineffectiveness.
Quite how Little reconciles these positions is an interesting question. Labour has shown little if any interest in investigating what New Zealand might do to support the anti-ISIS military coalition in combat missions. Little would be even more reluctant than Key to advocate a special forces role. This leaves Labour open to the charge, which Key is bound to hammer home, that it supports the aims of the coalition but is in no mood for New Zealand to make any sort of military contribution to it.
As I noted in a panel discussion held in New Zealand's parliament last week, there are also tensions in the Key Government's approach. Understandably, there appears to be a good deal of cynicism in New Zealand that a training mission can and will remain precisely that. Indeed the Government's language on what its forces will and will not do, and how they are comprised, leaves it with a fair amount of wiggle room.
But on one issue Prime Minister Key seems firm. New Zealand's forces will be in Iraq for only two years and then they will come out. As this exit date comes before the next general election in New Zealand, in theory at least National is not committing any future government to continue the mission it has started. But at that point the trans-Tasman partners may be in different positions. In one interview Mr Key said he expected 'Australia will stay longer, so they'll either backfill with more people of their own or maybe they'll find another training partner or whatever.'
This must make interesting reading for planners in Canberra who need to find extra Australian forces to ensure that the New Zealanders have a larger training mission in Iraq to contribute to. The joint statement from the Auckland visit politely refers to this situation by noting that Mr Abbott's 'discussion with Prime Minister Key had informed Australia's consideration of what further assistance it would provide Iraq.' Perhaps a tenth New Zealand wicket at Eden Park would have been a more satisfying present.