New Zealand is galloping down the home stretch to a trade agreement in principle with the UK and it matters both practically and politically.
Yes, Australia got there first; Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson announced their in principle agreement after a productive dinner following on from the G7 meeting. But Australia crossing the line first makes no material advantage if New Zealand follows hard on those heels with something comparable.
And the signal from London last Friday, where Trade Minister Damien O'Connor was meeting with his UK counterparts, was resoundingly promising.
The UK and New Zealand have agreed an August deadline to reach their own 'in principle' agreement. And there is good reason to believe our terms will broadly mirror the generous UK market access already wrested by Australia.
Australia has agreed a zero-tariff regime for dairy products entering the UK within five years of a deal coming into force, a considerable gain. Despite its lack of strong growth, Britain remains among the world's largest dairy importers.
The Dairy Companies Association of NZ would be pleased to take such 5-year terms.
The Australian deal also includes a 10-year horizon for sheep meat and beef to reach tariff-free standing. Sirma Karapeeva, CEO of the Meat Industry Association, is more cautious about endorsing a decade-long transition. But it's also clear that if the details are right - the specifics of how tariffs reduce over time and for what products - a 10-year time frame would be palatable.
Tariff elimination for agriculture is important. Last year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade published a summary of public consultations on the prospect of a UK agreement. Among some 250 submissions, primarily from individuals and industry groups, the single most pressing priority was market access (removing tariff and non tariff barriers).
New Zealand farmers, and agri-food broadly, have waited a long time to return to unfettered UK market access.
And while nobody imagines its return would mean anything close to the wealth it brought prior to 1973, when New Zealand's preferential terms ended, it does matter.
These days China is our most significant trade partner and the market for roughly 30 per cent of our exports. Exporters are not foolish enough to knock China publicly and talk of hedging their bets in case relations sour. But they are acutely aware of the need for a bulwark (even a modest one) against that possibility.
China's signature retaliation for geopolitical grievance is through trade. And it is abundantly clear that a slew of issues--from the crushing of political dissent in Hong Kong to the Chinese origins of Covid-19 - could damage New Zealand's very profitable trading relationship.
Indeed, in recent months Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has expressly advised business to diversify away from the Chinese market.
"There are some things [on] which New Zealand and China do not, cannot and will not agree," she warned.
That message increases the political need for an agreement both with the UK and with the EU, the two efforts at trade expansion already underway. A government warning that the status quo is in danger needs to do all it can to provide alternatives.
And there are other political exigencies too. The Government needs to show that it can engage with the world even while our borders remain largely shut, and half a dozen of our international consulates and embassies are shuttered.
Advice late last year to O'Connor, as incoming Trade Minister, warned that, "a scenario where others re-open their borders but New Zealand remains closed could mean we will be absent from the international scene for longer than some others: a significant risk for New Zealand foreign, development and trade policy that will need to be mitigated."
The gap between New Zealand and our international peers is already widening. New Zealand's vaccine rollout is the slowest in the OECD and, combined with our elimination strategy, it means that broad opening remains distant. In contrast this week, Canada announced that next month it will dispense with quarantine and isolation measures for international travellers who are fully vaccinated.
If the New Zealand Government can show considerable engagement with the world through trade, it will help blunt criticisms that prolonged isolation is damaging, not just to individual social connections in the wider world, but to the national economic interest.
Of course, O'Connor hasn't reeled in an agreement yet. And even an in principle deal is likely to mean that details, including the foreign investment provisions and professional and digital services access the UK hopes to secure, remain a work in progress.
Still, the direction is encouraging. As Charles Finny, trade veteran and consultant at Saunders Unsworth points out, "it looks very promising for an August agreement and it reflects well on Damien O'Connor."
O'Connor is now in France trying to prod the Europeans into better progress on an NZ-EU trade agreement. So far, headway has been slow.
Britain, on the other hand, has proved more motivated. It is animated by a desire, post-Brexit, to show off its improved ability to engage with the world. And, in particular, it hopes to join the Pacific trading bloc, the CPTPP, to which it cannot acceed without the help of both Australia and New Zealand.
Inevitably an in principle agreement must be followed by months (it's hoped not years) of hammering out details. A signed, ratified deal for either Australia or New Zealand isn't expected much inside another year.
That means there's still time for New Zealand to pip Australia to an agreement that actually comes into force. The practical difference would be slim, but that needn't dent the political win.