Bill English's first diplomatic sleep-over

Bill English - finding his feet as an international statesman
LAWRENCE SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Bill English - finding his feet as an international statesman

OPINION: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should be able to hit the ground running when he and Bill English meeting officially as prime ministers for the first time in Queenstown.

Turnbull and former Prime Minister John Key got together for a meal in Sydney last weekend and it would be a surprise if Key hadn't offered up some insights on his successor, Key's one time deputy and right hand man.

Key and Turnbull struck up an immediate trans-Tasman bromance when they met - Turnbull openly admired Key's record in government and made it no secret he wanted to emulate his economic achievements.

Mates. Malcolm Turnbull and John Key.
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Mates. Malcolm Turnbull and John Key.

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When Key last travelled to Australia for the annual trans-Tasman leaders get together he and wife Bronagh even stayed overnight at Turnbull's Sydney mansion - which saw their meeting labelled "pyjama diplomacy"

The New Zealand and Australian leaders regularly share an international stage together.
JONATHAN ERNST

The New Zealand and Australian leaders regularly share an international stage together.

Whether there will be the same chemistry between English and Turnbull is the big unknown.

The pair have been getting to know each other by phone ahead of Friday's meeting in Queenstown but it will be over dinner late on Friday night when the relationship-building truly begins.

During the earlier more formal part of their talks the Christchurch fires will probably be first up for discussion - Australia has already offered help and Turnbull and English will likely discuss what's needed.

But the leaders will also discuss the vacuum in world trade talks after US President Donald Trump pulled America out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, and regional security.

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English will be sounding Turnbull out on ways to keep the TPP alive - including by reaching out to China to take America's place as an economic super power.

That would make the deal attractive again to the likes of Japan, and could kick start efforts to save it.

But Australia's first priority will be protecting its own long standing free trade agreement with the US - the Trump effect means that even the diplomatically unthinkable is now possible and with Trump threatening to tear up other long standing trade deals nothing would seem safe.

But it's the old perennial - the rights of Kiwi expats across the Tasman - that will resonate loudest here. A deal offering a pathway to Australian citizenship for some expats is due to come into effect in July and the Australian's have been working on "design" changes , the scale of which are yet to be revealed.

Any changes watering down the entitlements agreed last year would be a diplomatic kick in the face for English in his new role as international statesman.

It was the strength of the chemistry between Key and Turnbull that got the citizenship "amnesty" across the line in 2016.

The amnesty was struck during a round table between Australian and New Zealand government ministers in Sydney. But it was Key and Turnbull who drove it through. The New Zealand delegation went into that meeting with modest expectations and were surprised on the upside by Turnbull's generosity.

There will have been plenty of diplomatic spadework by officials ahead of Friday's meeting. But last year's breakthrough shows why it is the power of those personal relationships which still count most - which is why the Aussie PM packing his pyjamas is a good omen.

 - Stuff

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