Friends, Not Family It's time for a new maturity in the trans-Tasman relationship

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Before federation, new zealand was one of the seven colonies of Australasia. Had it accepted the offer of statehood within the Australian Commonwealth, it would have ranked third in population and wealth behind New South Wales (to which it was annexed in 1840) and Victoria. But the 1,200 miles [1,930 km] of sea that separated New Zealand from Australia were, said Premier Sir John Hall, "1,200 reasons" not to join the new nation. Though the invitation to New Zealand to join the Commonwealth remains part of the Australian Constitution, such a union appears even less likely today than it did a century ago.

Still, the two countries remain good friends-as public figures on both sides of the Tasman like to point out. To mark Australia's 100th birthday, New Zealand chose a gift based on the Maori saying "Mau tena kiwai o te kete, maku tenei" ("You at that handle, and I at this handle of the basket"). The two 11.5-m bronze arches now flanking Canberra's Anzac Parade represent the handles of a kete, or flax basket, rising out of the ground as if lifted by giant hands. A powerful symbol of the losses shared and the legends forged at Gallipoli, the memorial also reflects the shape of the relationship between New Zealand and Australia. Not only have the two nations' soldiers stood side by side in conflicts from the Boer War to East Timor, but their economies are so entwined they could soon be indistinguishable. And such is the intermingling of their peoples that it would be hard to tell them apart if it weren't for their accents.

But that warm relationship is showing signs of strain. In Wellington, some officials resent the fact that Australia has tightened the rules for welfare benefits to Kiwis (who are now treated like all other migrants). There are grumbles, too, in Canberra, where New Zealand's military scale-back is seen as placing an unfair burden on Australian defense capabilities-and potentially threatening regional security.

The friction isn't new. Australian politicians have been grizzling that their defense force would be unable to operate effectively with New Zealand's since the anti-nuclear Lange government sank the trilateral anzus alliance in 1985. But the forces remain enmeshed in a web of agreements, commitments and joint exercises. Kiwis have been labeled beach-seeking "dole bludgers" by out-of-work Aussies (despite studies showing they earn more, and pay more tax, than the locals) since they began pouring into Australia in the 1980s, while their governments have wrangled over their respective shares of the bill.

So why are these spats so often portrayed as unbridgeable breaches rather than as recurring irritants in an otherwise healthy and developing relationship? The truism is that the two countries are like family: Australia is the older sibling who wants to play with the big boys to its north; as the younger sibling, New Zealand takes pains to set itself apart and is affronted when its closest relative takes it for granted.

What's missing from this picture is the fact that the relationship owes much to geography and international developments. United by their isolation and odd-man-out status in the Asia-Pacific region, the two countries teamed up to boost their own markets as countries across the region began integrating with their neighbors.

If the squabbles are to stop, both countries need to rethink the relationship -and drop the family references. By thinking about each other as close, but still separate, countries, New Zealand and Australia could be more objective about each other's domestic interests and differences. The European Union is made up of countries that have hated their neighbors for centuries. But concerns about loss of sovereignty are standing in the way of a currency union between Australia and New Zealand, even though it would broaden trans-Tasman trade and make it easier to do business in both markets.

As the E.U. demonstrates, countries can work toward a single market while retaining their independence and pursuing separate domestic agendas. Tweaks to traditional trans-Tasman relations don't have to get personal. If Australia's new social security arrangements were really designed to keep Kiwis out, for example-and not simply to ease immigration and budgetary pressures-work permits would have been introduced for New Zealanders.

Instead of navel-gazing, Australia and New Zealand should focus on looking outward together, using their enduring relationship to pursue common goals. That strategy has already helped both countries get closer to their neighbors and lower protectionist trade barriers against some of their products. For in the age of globalization, it's the self-interest of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that's really holding up the basket.