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.