Chris Hipkins’ first overseas trip as prime minister heralded few surprises. But, as Stewart Sowman-Lund reports from Canberra, that’s exactly what he will have wanted.
It’s been just two weeks since Chris Hipkins was sworn in as prime minister, a fortnight that has seen him deal with devastating flooding, formalise a cabinet reshuffle, oversee domestic diplomacy at Waitangi, signal policy adjustments and, now, meet with his first world leader on his first ever trip to Canberra.
New Zealand’s new prime minister actually spent more time sitting upright in the red leather seats of the Air Force Boeing 757 than on the ground in Australia’s capital. If you take out sitting-around-in-the-airport time, he was in Canberra for about six hours.
Nevertheless, it’s unlikely Hipkins will have any regrets about racking up the miles on what was effectively an extended photo op. In part, that’s because any overseas travel as prime minister, particularly when parliament isn’t sitting, is a good thing. But also it’s because Chippy was able to meet with Albo – Anthony Albanese – and reinforce the relationship between New Zealand and Australia. It’s a relationship that appeared rocky during the Scott Morisson premiership, but was reinvigorated by the friendship between Albanese, elected last year, and Hipkins’ predecessor, Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern, undoubtedly New Zealand’s greatest asset on the world stage, was a hard act to follow. But Hipkins – who admitted he has had relatively limited experience in foreign affairs – gave it his all. After rolling into the courtyard of parliament house yesterday afternoon, he was incapable of wiping the beaming grin off his face. He was soon anointed Chuffed Chippy by the media pack and later said it wasn’t for show, he really did like Albanese – though of course he wouldn’t say anything different.
The two prime ministers met privately for about an hour, with Albanese repeating his tried and true gift of a trio of Australian records – this time Gang of Youths, Alex the Astronaut and Thelma Plum. Hipkins gifted Albanese a pounamu in return. Then, it was down to proper business, over a lunch of scampi (Hipkins later chose to ignore a question on whether any sausage rolls cracked the menu).
A brief press conference was held outdoors, in the scorching Canberra heat, for both the gaggle of travelling New Zealand media and local Australian reporters. Just four questions were permitted, with predictably rote responses. “It means a lot as Australians that your first destination as prime minister is to Australia,” said Albanese. “This reflects the priority that Australia and New Zealand place on our relationship and the deep friendship between our countries, a friendship that has been reaffirmed during our meeting.”
Neither prime minister was particularly keen to divulge what specific policies or perspectives were discussed while they had chowed down on seafood. Albanese described the meeting as “wide-ranging”, while Hipkins said he looked forward to working with his new bestie on a “broad spectrum of issues”. Topics on the agenda included the economy, security and the role of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific. That span of issues reflected the “breadth” of the trans-Tasman relationship, said Albanese.
The pair also confirmed humanitarian aid for earthquake-stricken Turkey. New Zealand has contributed $1.5 million, Australia $10m, and both leaders acknowledged those who had lost their lives. “We know a little bit about earthquakes in New Zealand and the significant effect that that can have on people, so our hearts are with them,” said Hipkins.
While the PMs stayed mum on specific areas of conversation, a few were ultimately revealed after questioning from the media. Hipkins confirmed the pair discussed the path to citizenship for New Zealanders in Australia, and, unsurprisingly, the ongoing dispute over 501 deportees. Last week it was revealed that Australia had watered down the policy, a move that Albanese was at pains to label “common sense”. Australian officials must now consider how long someone has lived in Australia before deciding whether to deport them.
Hipkins said the policy update was an “encouraging development”, but made it clear that he’d sought further changes. “It’s a sign that the Australian government has taken onboard the concerns we’ve raised,” he said. “Over time I’m sure we’ll continue to have those conversations.”
Earlier in the day, Hipkins had the opportunity to reconnect with his former caucus colleague Dame Annette King, who is now New Zealand’s high commissioner in Australia. The pair were welcomed with a traditional Aboriginal smoke ceremony, designed to ward off bad spirits, before they took part in a closed doors round table that included Mfat executives and business leaders from both Australia and New Zealand. A handful of very vocal anti-vaccination protesters, seemingly unhappy with Hipkins’ visit to Australia, briefly disrupted the official welcome ceremony for the prime minister. It was moved to the other side of the High Commission’s office.
King stayed close by Hipkins throughout the day, including popping up among the media at both of his press conferences. At one point, she took on the role of disgruntled heckler, quietly expressing disappointment with a particular line of critical questioning. Later, when Hipkins was asked if King had given him any Labour Party leadership advice, she could be heard whispering “heaps”. Hipkins chose not to reveal any pearls of wisdom, but said that he would take her advice “when he wanted to”.
Hipkins’ final event of the day was an appearance in the Australian House of Representatives. There, he was greeted by MPs from across the political spectrum, including Albanese’s predecessor Scott Morrison. Most of Australia’s parliament, from all sides of the House, were keen to get a word in with our new prime minister. Hipkins said he “hadn’t even thought” about the fact he was stepping into Australia’s debating chamber as PM before he has gone for a spin in our own. This event was closed to New Zealand media, so instead we perused the Parliament House gift shop (I have no regrets over my magnet and pen, though ultimately chose not to purchase a mug with Julia Gillard’s face on it).
Those hoping for a political bombshell or any major policy announcement may have been disappointed by yesterday’s visit to Canberra. It provided few, if any, political surprises. But that wasn’t the point – and it achieved precisely what the prime minister set out to prove: that in his hands the trans-Tasman relationship is safe and he’ll keep pushing for New Zealand’s interests. But perhaps most importantly, Hipkins wanted to prove that New Zealand doesn’t need Jacinda Ardern on the world stage. That’s why this “photo op” wasn’t a wasted op.
Hipkins and Albanese will likely next meet at the coronation of King Charles III, while a visit by the Australian PM to Wellington is also on the cards for later in the year.