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UK Relations (Australia/New Zealand)

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has no truer friends in the world than the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand. On ANZAC day each year, members of the all-party parliamentary group for Australia and New Zealand attend Westminster abbey to commemorate this important occasion. On 11 November 2006 you, Mr. Speaker, along with several hon. Members from this House, attended the opening by Her Majesty the Queen of the New Zealand memorial at Hyde park corner, three years to the day after the Australian memorial was inaugurated by Her Majesty, both standing as lasting tributes in London to the memory of those Australians and New Zealanders who lost their lives fighting alongside British forces through various wars and conflicts.

The timing of today’s debate could hardly be better. As many hon. Members will be aware, Australia day was celebrated only last Friday, 26 January. There was much revelry and celebration by many of the inhabitants of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). I fear there may be one or two more sore heads next Wednesday, following the Waitangi day celebrations of 6 February in pubs all over Earls Court and the south-west of London.

The UK’s relationship with our antipodean cousins has always been strained by the geographical distance that separates us and places us at opposite ends of the globe. However, distance has been no bar to the very special bond that exists between our three great nations.

Some people have defined the UK’s relationship with Australian and New Zealand as more akin to brotherhood than friendship. The three countries often fall out over sporting rivalries involving cricket, rugby or sailing, but our people have always shared a common heritage and been bound together by a deep-rooted historical camaraderie. That friendship led our three countries to share the tripartite ANZUK force; although it is now disbanded, that military unit used to be charged with protecting ANZUK interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

There have been various trade agreements and student and business exchange programmes between our three countries, and we also share the same ideals of democratic governance. Moreover, many school and university leavers from Australia and New Zealand opt to take their gap year in the UK, and vice versa. Perhaps the most significant thing that we have in common is the fact that we share a constitution based on the Westminster model, and all three countries proudly uphold Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign and head of state.

The UK, Australia and New Zealand can be defined as prosperous western democracies and constitutional monarchies. All are characterised by political stability, relatively high incomes, above-average rates of home ownership and long traditions of representative democracy. Why, therefore, should we in the British isles feel guilt about how the relationship with Australia and New Zealand has developed in recent decades?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Australia Leadership Forum has been responsible for big improvements in the relationship between our countries? It was set up by the two former high commissioners Michael L’Estrange and Alastair—now Lord—Goodlad, and is being continued by the current high commissioners, Helen Liddell and Richard Alston. It met in London for the first time three years ago, and again in Canberra last year, and it brings together politicians and members of the business community. The Prime Ministers of the two countries have added their weight to the meetings, but both our nations face a change of Prime Minister in the next 12 months. Does the hon. Gentleman share my hope that future forums will benefit from the attendance of the UK and Australian Prime Ministers and their senior Ministers, as has happened in the past?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and entirely endorse everything that he has said. The forum to which he refers certainly adds to the relationship between our countries, about which I hope all hon. Members feel very strongly. Moreover, I hope that it will improve that relationship still further.

Some people believe that Australia and New Zealand could have felt let down by Britain’s decision in 1973 to join the then European Economic Community and, to a great extent, abandon our sovereign kin. Especially, we deprived New Zealand of its main trading partner, about which New Zealanders have some right to feel affronted. Since then, however, I am pleased that Australia and New Zealand have flourished as independent nations. Perhaps the mother country can now learn something from her offspring.

Both nations have shown great determination in defending the interests of their own people, internationally and domestically. Australia and New Zealand do not experience the level of violent crime and antisocial behaviour that we in the UK now endure. They do not release convicted paedophiles on to the streets owing to overcrowding in jails, or allow illegal immigrants to commit crimes within their borders.

If we have anything to learn, it is not from the lessons the hon. Gentleman is teaching at the moment, but from the fact that Australia has followed a very different policy from New Zealand and has been a sycophantic follower of American policy on climate change and on Iraq. New Zealand, on the other hand, has maintained an independent line on both issues—as we should have done in the UK—especially on Iraq, where it wisely stayed out. If we are to learn lessons, it should be from New Zealand rather than from Australia.

The points that I am making apply generally, although there will of course be political disagreements on certain aspects of policy. The values to which I refer are common to both nations.

Conveniently, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) completely forgot about Vietnam in his intervention.

Perhaps I should continue.

Australia and New Zealand deport illegal immigrants who are criminals to their nation of origin. They restrict the number of migrant workers, to preserve a manageable population size. More importantly, they have built strong independent economies that nurture scientific, mathematical, artistic and academic acumen to ensure that they retain an educational elite to secure their prosperity.

Both countries celebrate, with pride, Australia day and Waitangi day with a public holiday. Our Government would do well to learn a thing or two from Australia and New Zealand; indeed, they could start by celebrating St. George’s day, St. Andrew’s day and St. David’s day as public holidays for all.

In the first decade of this new century, is not it time to rekindle and strengthen the links between our three nations?

We are all looking forward to the hon. Gentleman’s non-partisan speech; I should particularly like more details about Australia’s transportation policy, which he mentioned earlier. Does he agree that one of the advantages for MPs is that they can travel to Europe? Perhaps he and I could work across the divide to see whether MPs from both parties who want to foster the links he proposes could travel to Australia—obviously not every year, but once or twice in a Parliament—and build such connections. We go to America all the time, but we do not go to Australia and New Zealand often enough.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal will be considered. I shall talk about travel between Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand later in my speech.

Would not it make sense for the United Kingdom to adopt an agenda for developing a special relationship with Australia and New Zealand, rather than to carry on pursuing some of the misguided foreign policy ventures we have witnessed in recent years? Is not it a missed opportunity for the UK that Australia and New Zealand share a formal military alliance, and that Australia has a separate alliance with the United States, yet the United Kingdom, a nation that shares such a rich heritage with those great countries, has no such reciprocal military treaty or formal alliance?

Let us not forget that 25 years ago, when the then Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, successfully led us to liberate the Falkland Islands from the invading Argentine forces, it was not Europe, or even our great ally the United States, that came directly to our aid in support of the expeditionary force, but the special forces of Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, New Zealand was the only country to send any form of substantial military support, in the form of a frigate, freeing up our own Navy to engage the Argentine enemy and defeat her.

Was it not rather unfortunate that at the time when Australia asked us to help—when it was involved in East Timor—the present Government gave them our support but the Opposition Front Benchers declined, and attacked us for doing so?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Of course, I would not expect the Opposition to agree with everything that I am saying this evening—[Laughter.] I believe that the commonality that we share is something that all parties can build on in the future.

This is something for which we should be eternally grateful, and should never forget—I refer to the assistance that those countries gave us during the Falklands conflict.

If the UK were to structure a more formal military alliance with Australia and New Zealand, it would benefit and bolster the already strong exchange programmes between the individual military forces, especially that of the Special Air Service and the special boat squadrons. It would also provide indispensable technological and scientific opportunities to research projects undertaken by scientists in conjunction specifically with navy and air forces from each of the three countries in areas such as the Arctic, Antarctica and the south Pacific. Surely Her Majesty’s Government should consider this point when our own military forces are so overstretched, so undermanned and so poorly equipped that it is only because they are the best and most professional military in the world that they are able to cope.

I touched earlier on the issue of immigration control, and I would like to return to it now, if I may. As all hon. Members are aware, when arriving at Heathrow airport citizens of the European Union are allowed to enter the United Kingdom through one section—an almost unrestricted and uncontrolled area signposted “United Kingdom and EU Nationals”. Those entering from countries such as Australia or New Zealand are forced to enter through the section denoted as “Others”. We arguably share closer relations and, historically and culturally speaking, have much more in common with Australia and New Zealand, which have stricter immigration and border controls than most, if not all, EU states.

What message does that send out to our Australian and New Zealand cousins who offer an invaluable contribution to our nation, with tens of thousands who work here legally, who prop up our national health service, who provide for and educate our children in schools up and down the country, who work to maintain the standard of our professional and amateur sporting industries, who sit next to us on the tube every day and who contribute through the inordinate amount of tax they are forced to pay? Will Her Majesty’s Government explore the possibility of developing a reciprocal immigration policy with Australia and New Zealand that mirrors the one currently in place between the UK and EU member states? Surely new procedures could be introduced whereby passport, visa and immigration controls are amended to make such a scheme a reality.

Our common British heritage should count for so much more than it currently does, and I call upon Her Majesty’s Government to look again at areas in which our three nations can work more closely together and establish practical ways in which to utilise more fully the unshakeable bonds between the peoples of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

In so doing, let us remember the heroism that followed the landings of allied forces at Anzac cove, Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Let no Member of this House ever forget the bravery of the Australian and New Zealand army corps, who, together with British forces, sacrificed so much in defence of king and country.

Tonight let the House demonstrate pride at the close association between the peoples of our three proud nations, bound together by language, history, culture, flag and the fact that we share Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. I began my speech by stating that Britain has no truer friends than Australia and New Zealand. Our challenge is to build a trilateral special relationship between these great nations. I sincerely hope that that may form the foundation of a new international policy for the United Kingdom in the 21st century.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing the debate. At one stage, I thought that he was going to make a speech of a general nature about the all-party group on Australia and New Zealand. I will write to the group in detail on some of the issues that we may not discuss tonight. I want to keep the group abreast of our continuing relationship with Australia and New Zealand. It is a special relationship—it always has been and it always will be. Over the next 12 minutes or so, I hope to set out the work that I am doing as a Minister, in support of the Prime Minister, to sustain that relationship.

From my own perspective, the issue is important because I have family in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. They are probably watching the debate. The McCartneys went to Adelaide and Melbourne many years ago. I regret to say that we meet on only a three-yearly basis. My mother’s family are in Sydney. They are great rugby league fans. My Uncle Bill was a pilot in the second world war. He came here to fight against the Nazis and he took my aunt back home to Australia. The rest, as they say, is history.

For a Scotsman and a diplomat there is also the question of how much to say about cricket and other sporting events. As a former chair of the all-party group on rugby league, I can say that the British Army rugby league team has defeated the Australian rugby league team in Sydney. That is the first—and I think the last—sporting achievement for some time where we have gained a victory. I thank both the British Army team and the Australians for that marvellous contest. As for our colleagues in New Zealand, I have a Maori name. I am called Tia Puka Iti, which means “little fat man”. However, having lost 5 stone in the last year or so, I think that I will just be the little man and drop the fat bit.

The debate gives us a genuine opportunity to discuss our excellent relationship with Australia and New Zealand. We have a close and long-standing relationship with both countries. Political, defence and intelligence relationships are excellent and there is a long tradition of co-operation on international affairs. The Prime Minister visited Australia and New Zealand in March last year and I followed up his visit in October. I will summarise the key outcomes of the visits and our ongoing co-operation with each country.

In October 2006, I attended the Pacific Islands Forum post-forum dialogue in Nadi, Fiji. That was followed by bilateral visits to both Australia and New Zealand. The objectives and outcomes included bolstering activities in the region, working with Australia and New Zealand to give active support to them and their policies in the Pacific and developing both a bilateral relationship and the multilateral relationship that we have with other Pacific islands and states. Together with our colleagues from Australia and New Zealand, we sent strong messages about the importance of good governance in the region as a foundation for sustainable development. We supported the continued role of the Australian-led regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands. The objectives and outcomes also included enhancing donor co-ordination in the region and ensuring our continued influence over the direction of European development aid. I supported the considerable efforts of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, to ensure that the conference was not overshadowed by some of the events in the Solomon Islands.

During my visits to Australia and New Zealand, I was able to follow up a number of the themes that were discussed at the forum. They have been followed up since by officials in the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry. In New Zealand, I was able to give reassurance about the United Kingdom’s engagement with the Pacific. As a result, we are sharing our strategic thinking on the Pacific with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and supporting New Zealand’s objectives in the region. I thank New Zealand for taking on consular responsibility for British nationals in several Pacific countries in which the UK is not represented. We reciprocate that assistance in countries in which New Zealand is not represented, so there is a close and effective working relationship between the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

In Australia, we agreed to explore collaborative work to address the specific fraud problems faced by Pacific island countries. I have proposed co-operation between the UK, Australia and other international partners to address the unique climate and energy-related challenges that are faced by small island Pacific states. As a result of the visit, I have asked Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials and British high commissioners in the region to examine how we can maximise our impact in the Pacific and work closely with not only the European Commission, but our colleagues in New Zealand and Australia.

In November, the fourth UK-Australia security dialogue took place in London. It was an opportunity to hold more detailed discussions on security and defence matters at a senior official level. Both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence participate in the annual event. The agenda for the meeting included the Asia-Pacific region, Afghanistan and the middle east, as well as counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism. The agenda will expand next year to include climate security. The hon. Gentleman was thus not quite right because there has been an active relationship on such matters for a considerable time. We should not underestimate that relationship or the efforts put in by ourselves, Australia and New Zealand.

When the Prime Minister visited Australia in March 2006, he arranged to set up an annual Australia-UK ministerial meeting. The first of those took place in London in December 2006, with the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, military and intelligence chiefs and their Australian counterparts in attendance. There were discussions on Iraq, Afghanistan, counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, climate change—including on a UK-Australia energy seminar to develop close working relationships on climate change—and Pacific islands instability.

Will the Minister say a little about the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that citizens of Australia and New Zealand should be able to go through the fast-track channel at Heathrow? It seems to me that the channel is used by not only British and EU citizens, but European economic area and Swiss citizens. Surely Australians and New Zealanders could be accommodated in the channel.

I will get through as many points as possible. I listened carefully to the wide-ranging speech made by the hon. Member for Romford, some of which we could all accept and understand and some of which was a lot of red herrings. It is important that the all-party group understands that there is a significant, welcome and supportive relationship among the three countries at every level, whether that is political or cultural. I hope that the relationship will be sustained.

New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, and I was delighted when Prime Minister Helen Clark visited us last year. She met the Prime Minister and they jointly opened the New Zealand war memorial at Hyde Park corner on 11 November. As the hon. Gentleman said, that was a follow-up to the event that took place three years previously to honour the sacrifices made in not only the first and second world wars, but other circumstances. I was privileged to attend that most moving occasion in November, when I was reminded again of the extraordinary contribution that New Zealand made to the allied effort in the second world war. As Helen Clark said:

“The War Memorial commemorates the sacrifices which New Zealand and the UK have shared in times of war and serves as a monument to the relationship between our two countries. It will be appreciated by all who see it, both the British people who live in or visit London and also the many New Zealand citizens”

who are welcomed to the UK. I stop off at the memorial for a few moments during my walks on most days of the week. It is a moving experience on every occasion.

Just as we have a dialogue on security with our Australian colleagues, we have such dialogue with our colleagues from New Zealand. The last meeting was held in London on 17 November, when talks were held on counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, counter-narcotics, organised crime and the security implications of the rise of China. The next talks will expand to include a consideration of climate security. I hope that I have been able to explain that there is significant dialogue on all the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised.

I declare an interest as a Member who is half-Australian. It strikes me that Australia has quite a lot to teach us on social policy, whether that is through how well it runs its child support agency or through its network of family relationship centres, which do much to prevent family breakdown. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will focus closely on links involving social policy, perhaps through the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments?

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question and I give him the assurance that he seeks. A lot of work is done and many exchanges take place—and not just political exchanges, but exchanges between officials in Departments. When I was at the Department for Work and Pensions, dealing with pensions, labour market access and training issues, I had a close working relationship with the Australian Minister, Mr. Andrews, although I had to advise him that my cousin was involved in trying to make his seat a Labour seat. However, that was another issue; we agreed to disagree on that. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, because such exchanges are among the most important cornerstones of our relationships, and we learn from each other. We have learned much about social policy from our colleagues in Australia and New Zealand, and vice versa.

The hon. Member for Romford raised the issue of immigration. On the development of our immigration system, now and in future, we are working closely with Australia and New Zealand to ensure that if we introduce any changes, there will be no disadvantage to citizens from Australia and New Zealand. Discussions with the Home Office are currently taking place, in a positive and constructive atmosphere. Australia and New Zealand are priority countries for our new youth mobility scheme, and that is of critical importance. Discussions on that subject are going ahead, and I will write to the all-party group in more detail about them and what they mean.

On trade, Australia is a more significant market for UK exports than its comparatively small population of 20 million might suggest. In 2005, we were Australia’s fourth largest trading partner after Japan, the United States and China. We sell more to Australia than to India or China, and Australia is the UK’s fifth largest market for goods outside the European Union. The agriculture, mining, oil and gas, information and communication technology, biotechnology, creative and media, marine, railways, food and drink, recreation, leisure and aerospace sectors all offer significant opportunities for British companies. Wearing my hat as Minister responsible for UK trade and industry, I view Australia as one of our priority markets. Much of the work that I did when I was in Australia was on developing a strategy with our colleagues there, inward investors and the Australian equivalent of the CBI, an organisation with which I was very impressed. It plays an important role in respect of industry in Australia, and it has a close working relationship with the CBI.

New Zealand is one of our top 50 export markets for a whole range of goods, including automobiles, tractors and pharmaceuticals. We want to develop trade and investment in that country, and work with it on policies on energy and climate security. We will do further work with New Zealand and Australia in the coming year, to take forward those issues and others. Again, I will write to the all-party group on that point.

I thank hon. Members for our discussion. Australia and New Zealand are fascinating, and I never thought that I would become a Minister with responsibility for our relationships with them. I have a personal interest in the two countries, not just because of blood relationships or rugby league, but because they are fascinating in themselves. The people are wonderful and have wonderful imaginations, skills, knowledge and a can-do attitude—the very attitude that we have as a nation. As long as I am in this job, I look forward to ensuring a positive relationship with Australia and New Zealand, on every level. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Romford and I will write to him shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o’clock.