When Prime Ministers collide

New Zealand PM Bill English will meet the Australian PM in Queenstown (Photo: National Party)

The tables will turn when Bill English meets Australia’s PM Malcolm Turnbull in Queenstown – for once it’s not Australia with a different leader.

Turnbull will arrive for the annual trans-Tasman leaders’ meeting where English and Turnbull will meet as well as a meeting of the finance ministers from the two countries – Steven Joyce and Scott Morrison – who once worked in New Zealand.

It will be the first meeting between the two, although English has been a regular visitor to Australia as Finance Minister.

Since former PM John Key got into Government in 2008, Australia’s Prime Minister have been on quick rotate. Key met with four of them – one of them twice over: Kevin Rudd. Then there was Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, who claimed Key was his role model after he rolled Abbott in September 2015 to become PM.

Now English is in Turnbull’s place of taking over as Prime Minister mid-term, and heading into an election.

English will head into that meeting with the Port Hills fires as a stark reminder of what is good about that relationship – Australia has offered help, just as New Zealand and Australia are quick to help each other, whatever the disaster.

But he will also raise what is bad about it. While the leader might be different, many of the issues at stake will be the same.

After his meeting with Key last year, Turnbull announced a special pathway to citizenship for some New Zealanders who had moved to Australia since 2001, when social security rights were stripped by Australia.

That is due to begin this year and English will seek assurances Turnbull intends to go ahead with it.

The fate of New Zealand-born criminals being detained and deported to New Zealand under a strict 2014 law change is also likely to be raised after a report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman criticised Australia’s treatment of the deportees.

Australia and New Zealand both also recently extended the joint deployment in Iraq, where they work together training Iraqi soldiers.

One thing that has changed since that meeting last year is the fate of the TPP. Last year in Sydney Key and Turnbull met soon after the signing of the TPP and were patting each other on the back for getting it over the line.

A year later, the agreement is in scraps after US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US. This year’s meeting will instead canvas ways to salvage what is left as both countries assess what options are open to them.

There will also be a good amount to gossip about – in particular Trump. English will be keen to get Turnbull’s assessment on what a Trump presidency means for world trade and issues such as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership.

Australia is much closer to the US than New Zealand, but in their recent phone calls with US President Donald Trump it was Turnbull who got a roasting. Turnbull – later called “President Trumble” by Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer – had a set-to with Trump over a US promise to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.

By comparison, English’s phone call was a pleasant affair touching on the Super Bowl and Waitangi Day before English raised concerns about a temporary ban on migrants from seven Muslim countries.

Turnbull hosted the last trans-Tasman meeting which was dubbed “pyjama diplomacy” after the Turnbulls had Key to stay at his Point Piper Mansion for a sleepover and then went kayaking together.

The relationship between Turnbull and English is unlikely to be quite so cosy, although a few outings to enjoy the Queenstown scenery are on the cards.

If Key and Turnbull were very similar, from investment banking backgrounds to their views on moral issues, English and Turnbull are chalk and cheese. Turnbull was a Presbyterian who became a Catholic. Turnbull has liberal views on same-sex marriage and abortion and is a republican.

After every change of Australian PM in Key’s years he would say he was confident that the “close and crucial” relationship with Australia would remain that way. This time it’s Australia’s turn to say the same.

[Read the Otago Daily Times article].

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