Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced to the world that New Zealand was again open to the world as she headed abroad for the first time in two years.
Her trip to Singapore and Japan covered significant ground, ranging from security pacts and climate change partnerships to the unusualness of a pair of dancing anthropomorphic kiwifruit.
On today's episode of New Zealand Herald podcast The Front Page, Newstalk ZB chief political reporter Jason Walls gives us a glimpse at what journalists saw when they were on the ground with the Prime Minister while also giving his view on whether the trip was worth the money.
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Why now for the international trip?
Walls: "This was basically an indication that New Zealand was open for business. There were two words that Jacinda Ardern repeated ad nauseum throughout the whole trip: and that was 'May second'. That's the date that Singaporean and Japanese tourists can return to New Zealand. Ardern was really a cheerleader for New Zealand tourism and business the whole time, really communicating to people overseas that they can come to New Zealand. In an interview we did with her right before we left, she said this was a trip about being open for business and trying to get bang for our buck. The underlying theme was really to promote New Zealand.
On the choice of Singapore and Japan
Walls: "It's worth noting that these weren't Ardern's first choice. She had planned to go to Europe first, but Omicron kiboshed that and there were a few alternatives on the cards. However, she was at pains to point out that these two locations are very close to New Zealand in terms of our relationship with them. Singapore has a tight relationship with New Zealand and Japan is one of our biggest trading markets and also one of the biggest economies in the world. This was really a case of indicating to our trading partners that we're back open for business."
On why Zoom wasn't good enough for these meetings
Walls: "Everybody [reading] this has done Zoom calls throughout the pandemic, or missed opportunities of being able to be somewhere in person. It's just not the same – and it does come across the same in bilateral meetings. It was the first time that Prime Minister Ardern had met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and having that face to face, or as she put it mask to mask, diplomacy was quite helpful."
On the security pact with Japan
Walls: "The security is an intelligence-sharing agreement between New Zealand and Japan. This ranges from mundane items right to the top-secret level. The Prime Minister wasn't giving many details as to what exactly it was, but we do know that China probably isn't going to be very happy because this brings us closer to allies of the US. I did ask the Prime Minister how much this had to do with the agreement that China signed with the Solomon Islands, but she said it has nothing to do with that."
On the climate change partnership with Singapore
Walls: "We only got a few details, including that they're going to be working together to help make sustainable aviation more of an opportunity going forward. But basically, what they said was that they were signing a fifth climate pillar and left it at that. There was not much opportunity to question the Prime Minister and the Singaporean Prime Minister. The media got only two questions in the press conference afterwards. So we had to really limit what we were talking about… We were all scratching our heads as to what it really means. When you start to hear things like 'the fifth climate change sustainability pillar' your eyes start to roll back in your head a little bit. It does sound a lot like corporate and business buzzwords."
On the dancing kiwifruit
Walls: "There was a room full of very serious Japanese businessmen in dark suits with notepads and pens. And on the side, there was this beautiful traditional Japanese music playing. And then out of nowhere, behind the scenes, the Kiwifruit brothers, which are two humanoid life-sized kiwifruit, started kind of solemnly swaying on the side. They got a lot of good press out of that, just because it was a little bit unusual. Zespri was trying to launch the kiwifruit season in Japan, and you know, it's been five or six days later and we're still talking about it. So they must've done something right… These lighter moments humanise things a bit, because it can get a little tedious."
On whether it was worth the cost
Walls: "New Zealand really does have a very good relationship with these two countries, so there was never going to be a possibility of an international bust-up. And there simply is no substitute for being able to look into the whites of the eyes of your counterparts. And in terms of how much it costs, they used the NZ Defence Force plane, which needs to be used regularly or else it increases maintenance costs. I think you could quite easily argue that this was fair value for money… This trip was a success, but it also wasn't a surprise. What is going to be more interesting is when the Prime Minister goes to other countries for similar sorts of diplomatic meet and greets."
The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.