COVID-19, Pacific to top Aust-NZ agenda

·3-min read

A pathway to opening up to the Pacific and a shared view on Samoa could come from the Australia-New Zealand Leaders Meeting in Queenstown this weekend.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will join counterpart Jacinda Ardern on Sunday, ahead of formal talks on Monday.

On the agenda are a plethora of bilateral, regional and international topics, all of which will be flavoured by the pandemic.

The two leaders speak often, chatting over the phone and texting on a near-daily basis.

But an in-person meeting is significant in the COVID-19 era, as trumpeted by Mr Morrison.

"The simple fact that Prime Minister Ardern and I can meet face to face highlights our countries' success in controlling the spread of the pandemic," he said.

Re-engaging with the Pacific has been nominated by Ms Ardern as the issue she would most like to progress.

"New Zealand is looking outward to map out our plan and strategy for reconnection. Our borders are quite closely linked. So I'd like to have a conversation around what does our region's reconnection with the world look like," she said.

The Kiwi PM said the agenda would be broad as "we're comparable in so many ways".

"Of all the bilaterals I undertake in this job, the conversation I have with the prime minister of Australia is by far the most free-flowing and wide-ranging because of the sheer number of issues for which we really can share policy ideas," she said.

"We're both - I'd like to think - quite pragmatic in the work that we do together, so we'll be looking for some tangible things to take away."

As the Pacific's powerhouse nations, Australia and NZ are eager to see the region recover from COVID-19.

Their tourism-dependent economies have been shattered by border closures and the trans-Tasman allies have committed to a vaccine rollout which could pave the way to a re-opening.

There will also be a focus on Samoa, which has lurched into a constitutional crisis with election loser Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi refusing to give up power.

Australia and NZ may take a tougher line on Mr Tuilaepa, uniting to ask him to make way for election winner Fiame Naomi Mata'afa.

Mr Morrison and Ms Ardern will also have plenty to discuss on China.

NZ is often criticised for being a soft touch on China, though the two countries have similar trade dependencies with the superpower.

Australian officials have been pleased with NZ's more hawkish statements on the superpower in recent times.

"Even though the (NZ) government is saying their opposition on China has been consistent and they haven't changed things, they have been changing things," Victoria University professor Robert Ayson told AAP.

"China is the biggest issue in Australian and New Zealand foreign policy and Australia has been wanting New Zealand to alter its position."

Aside from the formal talks, there will be attention on the informal too.

The pair are a political odd couple and have had missteps.

The leaders are of a different political stripe and different generations. Mr Morrison is deeply religious while Ms Ardern walked away from her Mormon faith.

The Australian PM surprised the Kiwi leader with an awkward hug when Ms Ardern's hand was outstretched for a handshake at the 2019 talks.

Last year, Ms Ardern dressed down Mr Morrison by telling him at a shared press conference "do not deport your people and your problems".