Fran O'Sullivan: PM must make most of his opening act

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It's important Prime Minister John Key makes the most of his opportunity as the first political leader to speak to the Apec Summit to push out the boundaries on free trade.

New Zealand will already be on the informal agenda at this year's high-profile meeting of Asia Pacific leaders by the time Key and his entourage reach Russky Island.

There is keen interest in international trade circles in the pending candidacy of NZ Trade Minister Tim Groser for the top job at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Groser will not be openly pursuing the WTO objective of being selected as the next head of the organisation. The formal campaign is unlikely to be launched until he has sufficient shows of support from leading trade ministers.

The expected announcement of Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard as the next head of the Singapore-based Apec secretariat will also add to New Zealand's cachet and deserved reputation as a key interlocutor in international trade and progressive force in the process of regional economic integration, which is the sub-text to 21st century-style free trade.

It now seems unlikely Key will be able to witness the signing of another historic New Zealand free trade deal - this time with Russia - at the Vladivostok Apec.

The Russian embassy lowered expectations on this score on Monday.

But while Key now seems unlikely to be photographed side-by-side with President Vladimir Putin witnessing Russia's first bilateral FTA - at the very least he is likely to leave his meeting with Putin with a renewed commitment from the Russian president.

Where Key will get the opportunity to make a splash is at the prestigious CEOs summit as one of four speakers at the opening panel on "Economic integration: Benefits and unintended consequences."

He is the only political leader on this panel. While Key is relatively small fry compared with Putin, outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao and Indonesia's Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - the mere fact that he is on at the beginning of the programme means that other leaders and their officials will have an opportunity to consider his words before the main business of Apec gets under way.

The key question is whether the PM will play-in some key messages for Apec political leaders to consider when they hold their retreat - or take the anodyne route which tends to be favoured by NZ's foreign affairs officials.

A newsletter spruiking the summit promotes Key's intentions. "With the Asia-Pacific becoming the engine for global economic growth, the success of our businesses and the overall wellbeing of our people will depend on our ability to make the most of the opportunities to improve trade and investment ties.

"We can do this through regional trade agreements, Apec, and, of course the WTO - I look forward to discussing these issues with the participants of the CEO Summit in Vladivostok."

With Russia having just recently made its debut at the WTO - and wanting to see some quick results to justify the internal disharmony caused by lowering domestic trade barriers - the time is opportune to focus attention on the need to get the Doha Round done.

Other panel participants include Igor Shuvalov, who is the first deputy PM of the Russian Federation, PWC International chairman Dennis Nally and International Paper boss John Faraci who spent time in NZ as CEO of Carter Holt Harvey when it was within his company's stable.

The PM's role will be to marry the lofty officialese that passes for communication in such fora, with business cut-through.

He will also have to balance the TPP agenda (which is largely seen now as being driven by the US) with that of the emerging Asian free trade bloc. At some point these blocs will need to converge.

This is a difficult balancing act. But frankly there is little point in Key pulling his punches.

At these summits, blunt, forceful and impassioned messages - sprinkled with compelling soundbites - make it into the international reportage.

On his arrival Key will also be briefed by Groser on the backstory to the Russian talks.

The Trade Minister met his Russian counterpart in Cambodia at another regional fora last week.

Before he left, Groser said he was ready to go at short notice to Moscow for further talks if the Russians indicated they wanted to break through the knotty issues around agriculture liberalisation in time for the Putin-Key meeting.

Russia already has a large dairy industry.

It wants technology transfer as a quid pro quo for liberalising its domestic market.

The Apec CEO affairs are usually dominated by wall-to-wall suits (and high-priced Armani at that) and are uniformly male.

But the organisers have gone out of their way to include a considerable number of female panelists and moderators in this year's lineup.

* Fran O'Sullivan is joining the PM's mission to Apec and Japan.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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