US sends top-level official on rare visit

By Fran O'Sullivan

The Government is preparing to host a fleeting visit by a high-ranking member of the Bush Cabinet.

Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton revealed last night that his United States counterpart - Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns - will visit New Zealand late next month.

"It will be the first full Cabinet-ranked visit since the 1999 election - of course I will be very, very pleased to have him."

Confirmation of the visit comes just 10 days after outgoing US Ambassador Charles Swindells warned the bilateral relationship was "starved of trust" and drifting backwards. Mr Swindells' speech was designed to create a platform for post-election talks irrespective of whether it is Prime Minister Helen Clark or National's Don Brash that leads the next government.

Acting US Ambassador David Burnett confirmed the upcoming visit was as a result of an invitation issued by Mr Sutton during a recent Apec ministerial meeting. "He [Mr Johanns] will be in the neighbourhood. It is a good time to meet."

Mr Burnett said the major issue before the two would be the state of agriculture negotiations at the World Trade Organisation.

The US Embassy has yet to confirm the exact timing of the visit for security reasons.

Mr Johanns' brief visit will shoulder a trip to Australia in late August for agriculture talks. "He's looking forward to it and I wish we could have him for longer," said Mr Sutton.

There has been a raft of informal visits by senior US Senators and Congressmen since the Clark Government took power. But the highest-ranking officials have been at Under-Secretary level. And US President George Bush bypassed this country when he visited Australia in 2003.

President Bush described Mr Johanns as a "man of action and complete integrity" when announcing his nomination for a Cabinet post. He has strong agricultural roots and was an ardent advocate for farmers during his period as Nebraska's 38th Governor.

Inevitably, New Zealand's quest for a bilateral free-trade deal will be raised during the talks.

Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff recently laid out New Zealand's position in high-level talks in Washington with US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

Mr Sutton has also raised New Zealand's bilateral trade prospects directly with Rob Portman, Mr Zoellick's replacement as top trade negotiator.

"I'm very happy with where that is ... " he said. "He ... remains [a champion of New Zealand]."

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