Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern got a rock star welcome in Melbourne yesterday.

But both she and, her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, who she will meet today, are carefully avoiding the major current irritant in trans-Tasman relations.

Ardern drew heavy media coverage for her various engagements in Melbourne and then got ovation after ovation from over 2000 public servants and school pupils for a very personal take on how Government can respond to populism.

The Melbourne Town Hall audience

The speech, to the Australian and New Zealand School of Government at the Melbourne Town Hall, even included an organist warming the audience up with a booming version of “Royals”.

The MC, ABC presenter, Virginia Trioli, told the audience that the Prime Minister had been told there were “two thousand people waiting madly to fan-girl and fan-boy her; she didn’t quite believe it, but she believes now.”

Aboriginal elder, Joy Murphy Wandin, was even more effusive in her “welcome to country.”

“You have put the fire in our belly and the warmth back in our souls for our right to self-determination,’ she said.

“All politicians should speak the truth like you do.

“Elders like myself feel empowered by you.”


But in the background to Ardern’s trip to Melbourne yesterday — which continues today — are questions about the actions of the New Zealand Reserve Bank stopping the takeover of the Australian insurance company, AMP’s New Zealand assets and the RBNZ’s proposal that the four Australian banks operating in New Zealand dramatically increase their capital.

However both she, and the Australian Prime Minister, are clearly not anxious to get involved in the issue; Morrison because there is little political capital at the moment to be gained in Australia being seen to support banks and Ardern because of the need for the Government at the moment to underline the independence of the Reserve Bank.

Instead, this is a trip about the “big picture” as one official put it.

Morrison, told a media conference yesterday that one of the main topics he wanted to discuss with Ardern was about moving forward with the initiative he launched at the recent G20 meeting G20 that social media and internet platforms could not be weaponised by terrorists.

In April, only weeks after the Christchurch shootings, Australia passed sweeping legislation that threatened huge fines for social media companies and jail for their executives if they failed to rapidly remove “abhorrent violent material” from their platforms.

New Zealand does not go that far.

Ardern told a media conference yesterday that she had no doubt she would discuss this with Morrison today.

“As a starting point we have taken the approach that no other country has done before, and it’s not just to look at regulation, fines and imprisonment but instead to say what we can do to try and prevent this kind of content being spread so easily online and so quickly online,” she said.

Four hours after that media conference Ardern was ready for the real point of her visit to Melbourne.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with Victoria Premier, Daniel Andrews.

With TV crews doing live shots outside the Town Hall on Swanston Street and long queues of people waiting for security bag checks it was clear her speech to the Australian and New Zealand School of Government was going to be more than an academic exercise for public policy nerds.

And the audience would not have been disappointed. It was a speech that appeared to get as near to the heart of the Ardern government’s political philosophy as anything anybody has said since 2017.

And it was a speech aimed straight at the heart of nationalistic populism.

“Around the world, democratic values and institutions are under threat in a way that many of us never expected to see in our lifetimes,” she said. 

“Nationalist sentiment that closes off the possibility of countries working together is surging.

“Authoritarian movements and regimes are on the rise.

“Norms that we in New Zealand and Australia take for granted – the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of expression – are being challenged in new and more explicit ways.

“These trends are only possible because large numbers of people believe, rightly or wrongly, that their leaders are failing them.”

She talked about being five when Rogernomics hit NZ and implied that was an era when leaders had failed.

NZ's High Commissioner to Australia and Ardern confidante, Dame Annette King. 

“I remember nothing of the Rogernomics of course– I was five, and I was not the Doogie Howser of politics,” she said.

“But I do remember the human face.

“Especially the kids who just didn’t have the basics.”

Her speech was to an audience which was largely public servants from both countries so unsurprisingly it focused on the role of Government.

The audience, however, wanted more personal answers.

Was she the leader she wanted to be, or the leader she had to be?

“As well as being an idealist which I am, I’m also a pragmatist,” she said.

“So whilst I  have these great hopes and ambitions for what I’d like to do while l have the privilege of having this role, I also come from a small town of Morrinsville, and that’s probably where I think my pragmatism comes from.

“So I’m okay with the idea that transformation takes a bit of time.

“Because if you want anything to stick with a country with a three-year electoral cycle, you have to bring people with you.

“I still remember ten years ago in my first year in Parliament. I was sitting in the noes lobby, which is a sad place to sit, and I was sitting next to our ex-Minister of Finance.

“In the debating chamber at that time, they were essentially undermining our emissions trading scheme.

And we’ve just gone through a series of votes on our superannuation scheme that also did something similar. 

“I just saw the emotion on his face.

“Years of work; just gone like that.

I think probably some of those experiences made me realise that transformation; for it to be truly transformational as Government, you have to build consensus

“Otherwise it’s gone. And so I’m okay with being a pragmatist.”

That idea of pragmatism appeared to influence her business meetings yesterday. 

Investors at Jacinda Ardern's lunch

She lunched with 15 investors invited by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (though the wines were Australian) and Ardern emerged enthusing about their sense of opportunities in New Zealand and entrepreneurship and innovation in the country.

She even suggested that New Zealanders were too modest about their achievements.

But her lunch companions were from investment funds.

The four New Zealand trading banks and the AMP were not there.

(Both the ANZ and the NAB, who own the BNZ, could have come; they are headquartered in Melbourne).

Instead, their voices were being heard in the Australia media with widespread coverage of the Reserve Bank’s decision to stop the Revolution takeover of the AMP’s assets in New Zealand and the increased capital requirements for New Zealand’s trading banks.

“The Australian” described Reserve Bank Governor, Adrian Orr, as the most feared New Zealander since Jona Lomu.

Orr’s decision to stop the AMP takeover knocked almost $1 billion off the value of AMP shares in Australia.

Meanwhile, Orr himself has been in Sydney meeting with his counterpart at the Reserve Bank of Australia. Philip Lowe; the chair of the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, Wayne Byres and the Australian Treasurer, Josh Fyrdenberg.

In keeping with the renewed policy of drawing down of the shutters at the Reserve Bank, there has been no official acknowledgement about what these meetings were about or even that they took place at all.

Ardern’s reaction has been similar to her approach to the GCSB and Huawei; to say that the Reserve Bank is independent and thee are not matters for politicians.

At the same time, she set out a strong defence of free trade in the wake of the populism she had earlier defined.

“If we broaden our idea of good Government and act with a sense of fairness of guardianship – and even kindness – of what we in New Zealand call manaakitanga and kaihakitanga – then I absolutely believe we will make headway on these challenges.  

“But we won’t succeed unless we apply these same values globally.

“For countries like New Zealand and Australia, that means prioritising international rules and norms that work for all countries.

“It means encouraging trade, not retreating behind protectionist barriers – trade that means jobs and livelihoods, but also trade shaped by an open, honest dialogue with our communities.”

What we saw in Melbourne yesterday was as close as we have come to seeing Ardern’s personal political philosophy set out in public.

That she did that may indicate a new level of confidence that she appears to have.

Maybe she is becoming a political rockstar.