Moving On From ‘Familiarity, Yet Distance’

Prime Minister Abbott's visit to Canada should launch a new era in friendship between Australia and Canada, says Russell Trood.
By: /
June 3, 2014

For decades, commentators on both sides of the Pacific have lamented the absence of more intimate collaborative relations between Australia and Canada. As the Canadian foreign minister, John Baird, told the Australia Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Melbourne not long ago, the relationship is characterised by a sense of ‘familiarity, yet distance.’

It could and should be a great deal more. Leaving aside the almost irreconcilable differences between cricket and ice hockey and Canada’s bilingualism, shared democratic values, the federal experience, economies of a broadly similar structure, membership of the Commonwealth with a shared monarch and strong alliances with the United States, among much else, underscore the extensive opportunities for cooperation.

It is not that the two countries are alienated from one another. In foreign affairs in particular, Canberra and Ottawa already work closely together in a consular partnership as members of the G20 and the United Nations and on defence matters through membership of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network. People to people links are also defined by thousands of Australians and Canadians moving back and forth between the two countries for tourism, education, cultural exchanges while economic linkages are growing.

That said, the opportunity to do more to broaden and deepen the relationship is there for the taking and leaders on both sides now seem keen to do so. Not only do the countries’ respective prime ministers appear to share a warm personal relationship, the intention to do more together is very visible.

Addressing the Melbourne Economic Forum, Australian Prime Minister Abbott said, “we are as like minded as any two countries can be. So I want to make more of this relationship: for our good and for the good of the wider world.” Reflecting these sentiments John Baird noted, “Canadians and Australians see each other as natural allies” and “more than ever” they should be “making maximum use of everything our great nations have in common.”

As always, the challenge is to lend substance to these positive sentiments. While we have a history to build on, the key to greater cooperation is not the past but the future and the two countries’ shared destinies in the Asia Pacific region. Both can contribute to and share in the growing prosperity of the region and although there are likely to be competitive aspects of engagement, the shared interest in encouraging market liberalisation and reduced trade protectionism can be a foundation of partnership. Enhanced cooperation through shared membership of APEC and the G20 would be a natural way to pursue these aims—as would common efforts to secure a strong Trans-Pacific (economic) Partnership currently under negotiation.

While there is good reason to be optimistic about economic opportunity in the region, a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra and the Canadian Centre for International Governance and Innovation, entitled Facing West, Facing North, reminds us of the many security challenges that lie ahead. Here again Australian and Canadian strategic interests are closely aligned as we look to contributing to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.

To this end as the report notes, there are opportunities for Australia and Canada to work separately and jointly with friends and local partners. The focus should be on building regional security and enhanced structures and processes of governance, particularly around improved capabilities for peacekeeping, disaster and humanitarian relief and cyber resilience.

Nor should greater bilateral defence cooperation be ignored. Here the logic of doing more rests on shared strategic interests, but also on meeting the common challenge of sustaining defence force capability in an era of budget austerity. This collaboration might cover extended participation in defence force exercises, but also strengthened activity and dialogue around issues such as defence reform and accountability, materiel procurement, policy planning and military education and training.

Beyond the obvious opportunities for security and economic cooperation, the Australia Canada relationship could be deepened and widened if we looked at other areas of shared interest. A governmental and academic dialogue on the theme of managing successful federalism and meeting its challenges into the 21st century would surely be of value. Finding ways to improve student mobility would be mutually beneficial.

In foreign affairs, existing consular cooperation might be expanded, and with budgets under stress a partnership to better align aid and development programs, especially in the post-MDGs era, around the interests of women, democratisation and enhanced human rights would be useful. Finally, Baird’s sense of ‘familiarity, yet distance,’ could be eased significantly if parliamentarians on both sides of the Pacific and at both federal and state/provincial level met more regularly.

While we might reasonably hope that the Australian and Canadian governments would take the lead in developing initiatives to enhance relations, the task should not be left to them alone. Diminishing distance and expanding familiarity, is an endeavour that needs to engage people and communities as well as business, educational and cultural institutions.

When Mr Abbott visits Canada over the next few days, he will be the first Australian prime minister to do so since 2006. That is far too long. Perhaps we can overcome the neglect by marking 2014 as the year of reset and launch a new era in a friendship which already reaches back well over a century.