When six Ministers and five departmental chiefs all head off to the same meeting, then something must be going on.
This Friday the Ministers and the civil servants will be in Sydney for an all-day meeting of the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum.
The New Zealand delegation will be headed by the co-chair of the Forum, the CEO of Auckland Airport, Adrian Littlewood and heading the Ministerial party will be the Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English.
Otherwise, the attendees are a who’s who of Australian and New Zealand business.
The theme of the meeting is “trans-Tasman opportunities” and what distinguishes this forum from much of the history of trans-Tasman relations is its willingness to park some of the perennial trans-Tasman gripes to one side and instead to focus on how the countries can work together.
Littlewood doesn’t entirely agree that the aim is to create an “ANZAC Inc” but he certainly thinks something along those lines is possible.
“We are looking at ANZAC Inc, but I guess we also recognise that we don’t want to force the pace on issues where there is no joint interest or shared interest,” he said.
“A common currency or a common border – those aren’t ideas that have any real interest these days.
“So we are focussing on what we can use our scale as two small countries in the world to get movement for both.”
The Forum will focus on five areas:
- Health technology
While the agriculture segment will focus on the hoary old issues of non-tariff barriers more positive issues are in front of the tourism and infrastructure segments.
Littlewood says a major announcement can be expected on co-ordinating infrastructure projects between the two countries.
And the Auckland Council, in particular, have been keen to see some of the larger infrastructure construction companies working in Australia also work in New Zealand to bring with them some economies of scale and the capacity to handle large scale projects here at a time when construction capacity is a known constraint on infrastructure growth.
Littlewood believes that the Forum’s “two countries, one market” approach can be applied here.
“I think it’s an issue for New Zealand and in particular for Auckland where the scale of the infrastructure construction that is in the pipeline is very significant and probably well exceeds the capacity of the country.
“That will become a productivity drag if we don’t get ahead of the curve.
“The New Zealand construction market is not broad or deep, and we are seeing that now in our own airport development.
“There are only a handful of construction companies; probably three or four that we can can draw on for complex development.
“It is important for New Zealand to have depth ion our development markets so we can encourage or invite overseas companies that can look at New Zealand and see a range of opportunities where they could apply their capabilities and scale, then I think that would be very important for New Zealand.”
In his own area of tourism, Littlewood talks about both countries eventually moving towards non-paper biometric travel documents, mutual recognition of visas and other moves designed to make the border between the two as seamless as possible.
And again there are opportunities for New Zealand to leverage foreign investment off investment in Australia.
He says that some potential overseas tourism investors might not see enough scale in either Australia or New Zealand on their own but together they might make an attractive proposition.
And Littlewood believes that new Zealand’s strong recovery out of the GFC has changed attitudes in Australia to New Zealand.
“You often hear senior business leaders in Australia commenting on how well organised new Zealand seems.
“So they are looking at us with our three and a half percent of GDP growth and starting to recognise that we are a country which is becoming a bit more significant regarding our scale.
“We are still small but it is a meaningful market now, and they have deep roots here through groceries, financial institutions and other businesses.
“So I think the are starting to get more interested.
“I’ve certainly seen that over the past five years.”
Part of the reason for that is because some businesses in Australia are seeing weaker demand while we remain stronger.
“I think the prospects remain very very good, tourism is going well; broader economic growth is strong; migration is staying high, and those things all generate economic activity.”