Jacinda Ardern's United States foray was delayed by Covid. Now Grant Robertson has come down with the virus.
He is not quite jinxed yet, however.
Robertson is still confident of attending next week's pivotal meeting of Australian political and business power brokers in Sydney: the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum (ANZLF), which will take place for the first time since September 2019, before the Covid pandemic emerged. That's because — all things being equal — he will get the all-clear to cross the Tasman on Thursday morning in time to join forum attendees for the first plenary reception.
If he had tested positive another day or so later, it would have been a Zoom call — or nothing at all.
The Prime Minister will also be back in town from her successful foray building support from European political leaders to get negotiations on the bilateral free trade agreement over the line. She will have a fireside chat with Australia's new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a forum dinner later that night.
Businesspeople present will be judging the verbal and physical semaphore between the two leaders to get a sense of how this new PM-to-PM relationship is unfolding. There will be humour. Some transtasman jostling and hopefully some zinger questions from the audience that evoke pungent and forthright responses to cut through the PR.
It all matters when it comes to building confidence.
But her bilateral business will take place elsewhere — the annual meeting of the two prime ministers takes place on Friday morning before the Air Force 757 departs at 1pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) for New Zealand.
The theme of this year's forum is "The Great Acceleration — Emerging Stronger Together", pointing to the acceleration of trends arising from the pandemic's impact and how Australia and New Zealand can emerge from global disruptions stronger together.
The Finance Minister — who has multiple gigs at the forum — told me at Air New Zealand's parliamentary reception this week that he was looking forward to a conversation with the new Labor Treasurer Jim Chalmers on the economic growth challenges post-Covid.
That session will be chaired by McKinsey's David Dyer and is expected to invite some engagement with the participants.
It is central to the forum's theme.
The economic relationship matters to both countries, with two-way trade worth $23.33 billion in 2022 and significant two-way investment flows.
However, Covid impacted the flow of trade as well as people between Australia and New Zealand. That two-way trade figure is down from $27.7b in the year to March 2020.
Both countries share some problems. Both are dealing with international ructions such as war, pandemics and climate change, and are seeking to deepen relationships through emerging architecture like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The cost of living crisis; emerging issues with our major trading partner China (more so for Australia, which has a habit of poking the panda); monetary policy; supply chains; housing bubbles (ours is bigger); and the Great Resignation to tip just a few.
One advantage for Australia is its ability to tap into our most valuable export across the Tasman — people.
The Great Resignation is now accompanied by the Great Exodus.
We are staring down a developing situation where go-ahead people in New Zealand who can't actually get ahead here will simply go to Australia instead, to fill labour gaps in its economy, and get paid more so they can buy homes. Australia (and Singapore) have capitalised on these situations before by offering tax breaks and even baby bonuses for people who shift nations.
ANZLF's New Zealand director Fiona Cooper relates that this year's forum will have a strong focus on transtasman collaboration on climate change, strengthening transtasman digital connections, the shared challenge of labour and skill shortages and economic growth challenges post-Covid-19.
"We will also discuss the challenges and opportunities for transtasman business in a range of sectors and spheres including international trade, foreign policy, indigenous business, tourism, science and innovation, infrastructure and health innovation," says Cooper.
Under her leadership on this side of the Tasman — complemented by her Australia counterpart Charlotte Renwick — Cooper has built multiple working groups to focus on common policy issues and present solutions.
Among the workstreams: health technology; indigenous business — of the 250 expected attendance at this forum there is a major indigenous group; infrastructure; innovation; and tourism.
There are six Cabinet ministers taking part: Ardern and Robertson will be joined by Stuart Nash (Tourism), Willie Jackson (Māori Development), Ayesha Verrall (Associate Health ) and James Shaw (Climate).
The forum has previously been promoted as a "successful symbol of transtasman togetherness", but it hasn't always been so.
The first at Government House in Wellington in 2004 was dominated by Australian interests who believed all would be just fine if New Zealand only adopted their institutions and formed common banking regulators, competition regulators and merged the national flag carriers. Hugh Morgan, then CEO of Western Mining, even gave the Kiwis a slap for under-investing in defence and the emergence of the Anzus debacle.
Later forums focused on proposals for common borders and common currencies.
If anything, it was the development of the Single Economic Market (SEM) concept under the leadership of former Australian Treasurer Peter Costello and the late Finance Minister Michael Cullen which forged a common purpose both sides could sign up to.
The ANZLF has put forward new measures to further strengthen the e-commerce and digital trade element of the SEM agenda. And it has recommended a transtasman Digital Economy Agreement to bring the governance and enabling of the digital economy into the Single Economic Market and help future-proof a more seamless transtasman regulatory environment.
Says Cooper: "We look forward to meeting with representatives of the new Australian Government and the New Zealand Government and to having new conversations on matters of common interest such as climate change.
"This will be an important meeting for sharing business priorities with both governments in preparation for some key bilateral milestones in 2023, including 80 years of diplomatic relations, and 40 years of our ground-breaking Closer Economic Relations trade agreement."
Cooper says the forum is looking forward to the outcome of the joint prime ministerial meeting — including on SEM issues.