Hipkins has a chance to show he is more effective in getting results  than Ardern in his Canberra talks


Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has undergone a stern baptisim of fire in his first week in his new job, but it doesn’t get any easier.

Next week, he has a vital meeting  in Canberra with his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese, where he has to establish the same kind of rapport as was established between Albanese and Jacinda Ardern as well as inject new energy into the  trade and defence ties with  NZ’s closest partner and ally.

It’s true Ardern won some concessions from Australia  on the sore point  of what  became known as the “501 deportees”.  As applied by previous administrations, waves of people with criminal records have been sent to New Zealand. Details of the changes now being made have yet to be  fully disclosed, although Albanese has said the policy itself will remain.

News media may focus on  what the Hipkins-Albanese talks produce on that issue, but the real substance  will  be on how they can  work together to secure the two economies against global economic challenges.

Both countries  have taken  a battering  as a result of the Covid pandemic, and  now  there is  widespread concern  that both are too dependent  on  China.  Australia, however, has secured  a  free trade  agreement with India  which NZ has singularly failed to do.

In any case, Australia has vast mineral exports which  have assured it of rising  living standards. As well, that has given  it the capacity  to ensure its armed forces are  well equipped.

So when Hipkins talks to Albanese about   New Zealand and Australia’s “many shared security priorities within the bilateral relationship, and for our engagement in the Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific regions”,  he is talking  as the very junior partner.

Moreover Australia  is New Zealand’s only ally – Australia has the US as an ally.

Casting a long shadow is the geopolitical competition in the Pacific between China and the United States.  In that  context, it is  significant that Hipkins  has entrusted the Defence portfolio to Andrew Little, removing it  from Peeni Henare who showed little interest in the essential role  of  giving the Army, in particular, the modern equipment it needs.  

Andrew  Little may have made himself unpopular with powerful lobby groups in the health sector, but at the same time he carried through the reorganisation of DHBs.

On  trade, given that the two countries will be marking this  year the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations pact, Hipkins has  the chance to give it  a  fresh stimulus,   particularly as climate change could lead to a   fall off in Australia’s dairy production.

Hipkins needs to produce  some  early gains for NZ  to show  that he is  more effective in achieving  tangible  results  than  his predecessor.

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