New Zealand-Australia relations plunge

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The Independent Online

"A dingo stole my World Cup," read a banner waved by New Zealand fans at a recent rugby match in Auckland between the local team, the Blues, and the New South Wales Waratahs.

"A dingo stole my World Cup," read a banner waved by New Zealand fans at a recent rugby match in Auckland between the local team, the Blues, and the New South Wales Waratahs.

The slogan – a play on the words uttered by Lindy Chamberlain after her baby Azaria was snatched by a wild dog – expressed the widely-held fear that New Zealand is about to be robbed of the privilege of co-hosting next year's rugby World Cup with Australia.

If that nightmare comes true when a ruling is made by international rugby authorities this week, relations between the two former British colonies – already strained by disputes over defence, diplomacy, immigration and trade – could plunge to an all-time low. Rugby is akin to a religion in New Zealand.

The two neighbours have enjoyed close ties while being fierce rivals in the sporting arena, but increasingly Wellington and Canberra see the world through different eyes.

Yesterday, following Zimbabwe's one-year suspension from the Commonwealth, New Zealand announced a travel ban on President Robert Mugabe. Australia, which hosted last month's Commonwealth summit in Queensland, is opposed to sanctions.

It was the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, who brokered a compromise in Queensland that saved Zimbabwe from suspension before the election. He was snubbed by his New Zealand counterpart, Helen Clark, who voiced disgust at the summit's failure to act.

Relations are now so poor that Ms Clark recently went so far as to ask Australian ministers to stop interfering in her nation's affairs. The rebuke followed claims in Canberra that New Zealand was a soft touch for asylum-seekers and was failing to pull its weight in regional defence. Ms Clark, who is convinced New Zealand faces no strategic threat, has scrapped its air combat force and reduced its naval capacity. The move was criticised by Australia, which believes New Zealand will rely on it to help in a crisis.

There are other problems. Australia, home to half a million Kiwis, has chipped away at the reciprocal residency and employment rights traditionally enjoyed by both sets of citizens.

Ordinary Australians are angry about the mismanagement of their domestic airline, Ansett, by its parent company, Air New Zealand, while New Zealanders resent the appropriation of successful exports such as the actor, Russell Crowe. Oscar-winning Crowe, who lives in Australia, is regularly claimed as an Australian.

Australians and Kiwis have always enjoyed poking fun at each other, but the jokes about convicts and sheep have acquired a hard edge. "There is more bite and bitterness now to what used to be good-natured banter," said Colin James, a columnist with The New Zealand Herald. "It's gone beyond sibling rivalry. A lot of Australians refer to New Zealand in a nasty, contemptuous way."

The rugby row could prove the last straw. While New Zealand has not helped itself by failing to guarantee advertising-free venues, Australia has been swift to exploit the situation. So if New Zealand loses, it will know whom to blame: its neighbour across the Tasman Sea.

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