The nuclear-free antennae worn by many New Zealanders have been bristling at news of a counter-campaign by Australian diplomats at the UN.

At issue is a statement on the humanitarian grounds for disarmament which was presented in November 2013 at the General Assembly's First Committee by New Zealand's Disarmament Ambassador Dell Higgie. Among the scores of countries signing up to the statement, Wellington was especially delighted to gain a signature from Japan, whose continuing reliance on American extended nuclear deterrence has always sat uneasily alongside its long-standing disarmament credentials.

At the core of the Kiwi-led statement is the line that 'It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.'

Australia's opposition to this sweeping judgment entered the public record at the time. In one stinging piece of criticism, Ramesh Thakur observed that Canberra had presented a separate view 'on behalf of 17 countries, mainly those protected by US nuclear weapons under extended nuclear deterrence'. (Clearly wanting to have a bet each way, Japan had also signed up to this dissenting opinion.)

All of this is public diplomacy. But yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald article (Federal government worked to scuttle New Zealand statement against nuclear weapons) has drawn attention to Australia's efforts behind the scenes, implying that DFAT was working a little too hard to undermine the New Zealand-led position. Is this really what very close friends do?

The most imaginative response to these revelations has come from John Key, whose main job yesterday was to announce the 20 September date of New Zealand's general election. Australia's take on the New Zealand initiative, the popular Prime Minister is reported as saying, had been shaped by its interests as a uranium exporter and ally of the US. The uranium portion of this explanation is probably news to everyone concerned, since Australia's exports are for energy generation and not weapons production.

New Zealand's main opposition party got closer to the real issue by citing Australia's continuing belief in the role of nuclear deterrence. But this was not a message of mutual understanding. Labour's Disarmament spokesperson Maryan Street insisted that this was an 'outdated' policy which 'leaves Australia on the outer in international terms.'

New Zealand's strong stand on nuclear disarmament has become woven into the fabric of its international profile and its domestic politics. It's an approach which finds support in quite a few Australian circles including the editorial pages of the Melbourne Age.

But this does not suddenly mean that Australia's efforts are morally questionable while the other side of the Tasman basks in the glory of a pure and righteous position. The SMH's story cited the opinion of DFAT Head Peter Varghese that the New Zealand initiative 'runs against our security interests'. He has a point. Perhaps the Sydney paper's headline ought to have read 'Australian diplomats found doing their job.'

Photo by Flickr user geoftheref.