Why Prime Ministerial Visits Matter

Peter Woolcott


New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Queenstown for the annual Leaders Meeting.

As the Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand the event you look forward to most each year is the annual Leaders Meeting.

While invariably short, these visits can accomplish a huge amount for a bilateral relationship.  They set the direction for work that will continue long after the PM’s plane leaves, and they build the foundations of mutual respect and trust between leaders which is so important in maintaining strong relationships between countries. It is also a chance to cut through bureaucratic thickets and get decisions made.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s recent visit to Queenstown was a great example of how much can be achieved in just 24 hours.

Firstly, some important new initiatives were agreed:

  • The Australia New Zealand Science, Research and Innovation Cooperation Agreement was signed, paving the way for greater collaboration in science, innovation and research to enhance welfare and prosperity and create jobs;
  • Building on the Australia New Zealand Infrastructure Pipeline, the two countries will aim to further integrate our infrastructure markets, such as by aligning pre-qualification requirements to create a more seamless and attractive proposition for both domestic and foreign construction firms and investors;
  • To further improve the ease of travel across the Tasman, we’re going to be exploring options for new smart technologies to make the border experience more efficient;
  • The pathway to Australian citizenship for New Zealanders who have resided long-term in Australia will be applied flexibly to particular individuals who are unable, for reasons such as breaks in employment as a result of injury or carer responsibilities, to meet the income test requirement to enter the pathway.

There’s a reason that some of these initiatives (and the many other areas in which we agreed to collaborate and learn from each other) don’t sound particularly  ground-breaking: the big announceables in the bilateral relationship were made years ago.  Since we signed the Closer Economic Relations agreement in 1983, Australia and New Zealand have become among the most integrated partners in the world.

But some hurdles do remain, and where removing them would provide benefits to both countries, or where acting in concert gives us a stronger voice on the international stage, our Prime Ministers are committed to working together.

Secondly, the meeting was an opportunity for the two leaders to share views on global issues.

In these times of growing protectionist sentiment in many parts of the world, trading economies like Australia and New Zealand need to work together closely to sell the benefits of open markets to the world.  We also need to work together to promote a rules-based international order and strengthen regional and global security.

The leaders were very much on the same page on these issues and took the opportunity to discuss how Australia and New Zealand could collaborate to defend and advance our shared international security and economic interests.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the visit allowed the Prime Ministers to get to know each other.  There is a huge amount of ballast in the relationship, but it shouldn’t be underestimated just how valuable it is for the leaders of Australia and New Zealand to have a strong and constructive personal relationship.  This is all the more so when global dynamics are in a state of flux and change.

The meeting was designed to allow the two Prime Ministers to spend considerable time with each other outside the formal meeting room and away from the notetakers’ pens.  The rapport they have established will help to further entrench the bonds of friendship and cooperation that have long characterised the trans-Tasman relationship.


Peter Woolcott is the Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand. You can read his full biography here.

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