Chris Hipkins’ first offshore trip as leader went without a hitch, albeit with a low bar to clear. The challenge now is ensuring that Australian rhetoric around expat rights becomes reality, while Hipkins himself needs to figure out his own foreign policy agenda. Sam Sachdeva reports, in Canberra.
Given the recent turbulence in the Australia-New Zealand relationship, no news is probably good news when it comes to a meeting between the two countries’ leaders.
In that regard, Chris Hipkins’ flying visit to Canberra could be regarded as an outstanding success.
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Hipkins’ trip didn’t rate a mention in Tuesday’s editions of the Australian Financial Review and the Canberra Times, and Wednesday’s papers seem unlikely to carry enthralling accounts of his meeting with Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese.
The pair dead-batted every tricky question that came their way, from AUKUS to indigenous rights and the deportation policy repeatedly described by Hipkins’ predecessor Jacinda Ardern as “corrosive” to the relationship.
Even on more positive topics, such as strong business ties, platitudes rather than substance won the day.
But to dismiss the day’s events as a pointless talkfest would be unfair to Hipkins on a number of levels.
For one, he has been in the top job barely a fortnight, during which time he has had to handle a Cabinet reshuffle and severe flooding in Auckland – hardly an environment conducive to deep contemplation about the state of trans-Tasman relations.
Then there is the fact that the bilateral relationship is, for all its recent bumps, one that fundamentally works without need for substantial reform thanks to the enduring economic ties and cultural bonds between the two countries.
But most to Hipkins’ credit is the clear enthusiasm with which he approached the day’s activities, a beaming grin present on his face for most of his time across The Ditch.
That passion wasn’t lost on the business leaders who took part in a roundtable with the Prime Minister shortly after his arrival.
“There was a lot of optimism in the room about just how many opportunities there are – if we’ve got the right frameworks, we can turbocharge what is already a great relationship.”
– Anna Bligh, Australian Banking Association
Anna Bligh, chief executive of the Australian Banking Association and a former Labor premier of Queensland, told Newsroom about the “real sense of goodwill among the delegates” and their appreciation of his decision to visit Australia so soon into his leadership, as well as his grasp of the complex economic issues being discussed.
“There was a lot of optimism in the room about just how many opportunities there are – if we’ve got the right frameworks, we can turbocharge what is already a great relationship,” Bligh said.
Peter Tompkins, the chief executive of multinational engineering and services company Downer, was similarly effusive about the energy in the room and Hipkins’ early visit, given the common economic challenges.
“The macro conditions affecting businesses in Australia and New Zealand are almost identical: we are both dealing with the same sorts of challenges, particularly around labour and supply chains, and I think that will continue for some time to come.”
The new prime minister even proved keen (or at least willing) to engage in banter with the media; he spent a not insignificant portion of the outgoing and inbound flights chatting to journalists, in contrast to the weariness – and wariness – that Ardern understandably displayed towards the press by the end of her time in power.
Of course, flattery of the fourth estate shouldn’t be a prerequisite for any prime minister; on the other hand, many reporters like to be liked, and if nothing else Hipkins seems acutely aware of the need to win back public opinion in some areas of the Government’s work programme.
In one of those areas – co-governance – Albanese showed little interest in taking lessons from New Zealand’s experience, even as Australia prepares for a referendum on whether to adopt an Indigenous Voice to Parliament giving constitutional recognition to the views of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
“The New Zealand system has seats reserved and has a range of things in place that aren’t contemplated by what will be before the Australian people later this year,” he said.
It’s an understandable argument, but one potentially made to head off scaremongering from opponents on the right who have criticised Ardern’s alleged “apartheid” in the past.
China is a topic where the two countries are now more closely aligned, with the Labor government replacing the Coalition’s belligerent approach with a more moderate tone but a sustained caution about Beijing’s actions.
Albanese’s refrain, that Australia would “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest”, is a more robust version of the line taken first by Ardern and now Hipkins: that New Zealand can speak out on issues where it disagrees with China without undermining the relationship.
The Australian Prime Minister also noted the importance of China as a trading partner, with his country’s trade with the superpower worth more than the next three highest markets combined. With the two nations resuming trade discussions and Albanese expressing hope of visiting Beijing later this year, the hawkish narrative of Canberra standing firm on principle while cowardly Wellington makes blood money is becoming less tenable by the day.
Hipkins himself is still weighing up whether to follow through on Ardern’s pledge to lead a trade mission to China in 2023, noting (not unreasonably) he’d had little time to develop an international travel plan in the last fortnight.
Foreign policy bona fides a work in progress
But that defensiveness, on display when the New Zealand Prime Minister repeatedly declared New Zealand’s foreign policy had not changed and ducked specific questions about his thinking, may be an indication of his relative inexperience in the international arena.
Hipkins conceded it was “a new part of the job”, although he argued his work on international education gave him some credentials.
In fairness, National leader Christopher Luxon has himself been lacklustre when it comes to articulating his own foreign policy views. But an opposition leader can more easily duck such questions, while the Prime Minister is often expected to be the most prominent voice when it comes to international issues of national interest.
Ardern was similarly broad brush in her early days as prime minister, but quickly settled into the role of stateswoman. There is still time for Hipkins to establish his own bona fides, with the Pacific Islands Forum and that potential China visit among the most likely pre-election destinations.
Then there is the relationship with Australia, which will either be bolstered or tested when the details of its new pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders is unveiled by Anzac Day.
Hipkins and his officials will also be keeping a close eye on the impact of changes to Australia’s deportation policy and whether they actually result in fewer ‘Kiwis’ getting sent away (albeit with limited leverage beyond stern words to make any advances).
Boring was useful, at least for the day – but the international landscape may not be so uneventful in the months before the October 14 election.
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