Chris Hipkins’ first overseas trip as Prime Minister comes on relatively friendly territory. But while there have been marked improvements in the trans-Tasman relationship since a change in Canberra, there is still plenty to discuss, as Sam Sachdeva writes

In many ways, it is fitting Chris Hipkins should make Australia the destination of choice for his first offshore visit as New Zealand’s leader.

There is the fact that our trans-Tasman neighbour is always towards the top priority for an incoming prime minister, if not the first name to be jotted down.

Then there are the significant milestones being marked this year: the 80th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations, the 50th anniversary of a trans-Tasman travel deal allowing (relatively) free movement between the two countries, and the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations pact – New Zealand’s oldest free trade deal, and one which has bound our economy almost inextricably with that of Australia’s.

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But Hipkins may have cause to reflect on a less positive personal history with Australian politicians as he heads across the ditch on Tuesday morning for a flying visit.

During the 2017 election campaign, Hipkins and Labour faced allegations of dirty tricks from the Coalition government in Canberra after it was revealed the opposition MP had lodged parliamentary questions related to the citizenship status of Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Joyce was forced to resign after confirmation he unwittingly held New Zealand citizenship through his father – part of a wider eligibility crisis dogging the Australian Parliament at the time – with one Australian minister accusing Labour of conspiring with their Australian Labor counterparts “to try and bring down the government”.

Then as a Government minister himself in 2021, Hipkins accused Australia of “exporting its garbage to New Zealand” over its draconian deportation policy – only to swiftly walk back his remarks.

Plenty has changed since those two incidents. For one, there is a new government in Canberra, and a Labor one at that, with new Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese having already proven far more willing to act on Kiwi concerns.

When Albanese met Jacinda Ardern in Sydney last year, the pair announced a wide range of joint work programmes, from streamlining Kiwis’ pathway to Australian citizenship to collaborating together more closely in the Pacific and on climate change.

Questions around ‘common sense’ approach

Most surprisingly, Albanese indicated his government would take a more “common sense” approach to deporting New Zealand citizens with longstanding ties to Australia.

It was easy to assume the promise would come to little, given there is little to gain and plenty to lose domestically by keeping more criminals in the country even if that is their home. But less than a week out from Hipkins’ trip, the Prime Minister received welcome news in the form of a ministerial directive requiring Australian officials to take into account the amount of time a person has lived in Australia, as well as the strength of their ties in the country, before ordering a deportation.

On the face of it, that should mean an end to the most egregious cases where a New Zealand citizen is sent “home” despite having lived in Australia since they were a child, with their loved ones left behind. But with no change to the underlying legislation, much will depend on exactly how that discretion is used when it comes to making a final decision, as well as any pushback from the Australian opposition (currently led by immigration hardliner Peter Dutton).

Then there is the matter of a streamlined citizenship process, the details of which are set to be unveiled by Anzac Day this year.

The Australian government has attempted such a move once before, in 2016. But while John Key and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull trumpeted the significance of the agreement at the time, the high costs and lengthy timelines involved meant there was minimal take-up – a state of affairs that explains why it is being revisited just seven years later.

As with the deportation changes, the detail will matter, and while the Government here has little leverage beyond appealing to a sense of fair play, Hipkins and his ministers must be willing to speak out if the arrangements prove similarly underwhelming.

Foreign policy rarely dominates on the campaign trail, yet in an increasingly volatile world there is every chance the Prime Minister will be forced to weigh-in on an unexpected issue – and any help he can get from across the ditch would surely be appreciated.

There are plenty of issues to be discussed beyond the bilateral relationship too, not least China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Albanese has made a point of turning down the temperature in the relationship between Canberra and Beijing following a full-blown trade war under the last government, taking an approach arguably closer to that of New Zealand.

With the Australian Prime Minister having expressed hopes of a visit to Beijing this year, and Hipkins potentially in a position to follow up on Ardern’s pledge to lead a trade mission to China once its border settings were changed, the two leaders may well be comparing notes on what issues to raise, to avoid any wedge being placed between the countries as has happened in the past.

Albanese is also delivering the keynote address at June’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, suggesting he will look to articulate a stronger Australian vision for the region that will affect New Zealand as much as anywhere else.

Hipkins seems unlikely to be quite as expansive: his “bread and butter” mantra does not quite mesh with jet-setting to summits and foreign nations in an election year, even if there is a clear economic interest in Aotearoa advocating for the rules-based international order.

But such trips do offer a chance to look ‘prime ministerial’, and even if Hipkins is unlikely to match Ardern in terms of star power, he will surely appreciate the opportunity to be at the podium alongside Albanese discussing big issues.

Foreign policy rarely dominates on the campaign trail, yet in an increasingly volatile world there is every chance the Prime Minister will be forced to weigh-in on an unexpected issue – and any help he can get from across the ditch would surely be appreciated.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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