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Departing diplomat urges NZ understanding

Australia’s departing top diplomat in Wellington says Australians have a “superficial” understanding of New Zealand, and Canberra needs to ask less of its trans-Tasman ally.

Patricia Forsythe has ended her three-year tenure as Australian High Commissioner, a period which has included tragedy on both sides of the ditch.

Her replacement in the role is Australia’s former High Commissioner to India, Harinder Sidhu.

Ms Forsythe, a former NSW Liberal MP, was in the final stages of diplomat training at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when Australian man Brenton Tarrant attacked two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people.

She arrived in New Zealand to start her new job the next day.

“We had to face up to the fact that you couldn’t sweep it away,” she tells AAP.

“I don’t think for the first three or four months as I met ministers and heads of agencies that we talked about almost anything else.”

Months after the March 15 atrocity came the Whakaari-White Island volcanic eruption, which killed 14 Australians, a summer of devastating bushfires in Australia, and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In all those trials, Australian and New Zealand emergency services, coroners, firefighters and health professionals worked side by side.

“When there is a crisis we will always be there for each other. We always have each other’s back,” Ms Forsythe says.

“That marks the really close relationship that is often not written about or talked about, but it is fundamental to who we both are.”

Ms Forsythe believes Australians do not generally understand the evolving place of Maori in New Zealand society and governance, born out of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between Maori and the Crown.

“We do have what I’ll describe as a superficial knowledge (of NZ) in Australia,” she says.

“Everybody will know a New Zealander. But the fundamental difference that I’ve learned, the thing that struck me, was the role of Maori and the impact of the Waitangi Treaty.

“New Zealand is now working through and thinking through some of their own governance issues around Waitangi. The lifting of language … that is definitely shaping who they are and where they’ll be in the future.”

The countries are often billed as the best of friends – and demonstrate that in times of need – but the relationship is also deeply off-balance.

Australia has five times the population and seven times the economy of New Zealand.

Kiwi politicians describe the Australian relationship as New Zealand’s most important, but Ms Forysthe said the High Commission in Wellington was “well outside the top 10” of Australia’s biggest foreign posts.

“We do start from different perspectives,” she says.

“I’ve said it so many times, to remind people, this is a country of five million people. We ask a lot (of New Zealand).

“New Zealand has a defence force, it has posts, it’s got a distinct foreign policy. It plays a part in the world.

“Its exclusive economic zone is effectively virtually the equator to the Antarctic. There’s a lot for New Zealand.

“Putting it against the lens of Australia, there is a size difference as to what we can do.”

Where Australia and New Zealand repeatedly clash is over Australia’s deportations policy, which sees hundreds of Kiwis sent across the Tasman each year.

Those deportees often do not have links to New Zealand, and some form gang associations – leading to recidivism in their new home.

“I get it at some levels,” Ms Forsythe says of Kiwi criticism of Australia’s tough rehoming policy.

“But I would make the point to anyone in New Zealand – it is not about New Zealand. It is aimed at anybody who breaks the rules.

“All countries deport people.”

There is also the persistent suggestion that the two countries’ prime ministers, Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison – who have different backgrounds, values and are of different generations – do not get along.

“I reject that. And I say that because I only need to look at the sort of engagement that took place through this time of COVID,” Ms Forsythe says.

“They have an engagement that goes beyond anything that you and I would know. They text each other, they talk to each other.

“I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time with them together and it was a very friendly engagement.

“They keep each other informed because it’s in both our countries’ interest to do so.”

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