INTOUCH : Comment On Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum

My recent membership of the New Zealand delegation to the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum in Wellington conferred couple of special privileges upon me the likes of which, as journalist, I would usually not enjoy.
The first was to gain an insight into the workings of high-level policy conference from inside the tent, rather than outside it, which is usually where I languish on such occasions.
The second, was, from my strategic vantage point near the front of the room, to spend day and half watching the deployment into action of two distinctive but equally remarkable leadership styles.
Since it began four years ago, the forum has been led by two co-chairmen, one from each side of the Tasman. The New Zealand incumbent is John Allen, chief executive of New Zealand Post, while the co-chairman from Australia, standing in for regular chairman James Strong, was SkyCity Entertainment Group chairman Rod McGeoch.
The forum, and my reportage of it, are constrained (not severely, but constrained nevertheless) by the Chatham House Rule, which says: “When meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” The world-famous rule is invoked at meetings to encourage openness and the sharing of information.
I’m going to risk censure by declaring that watching Rod McGeoch and John Allen in action was treat.
McGeoch, the man who led Sydney’s successful bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, was also instrumental, as consultant, in Athens winning the rights to host the 2004 games. He oozes gravitas and authority, dresses impeccably, and is tall, strongly built man.
John Allen, widely regarded as one of the best after-dinner speakers in this country’s corporate world, is charming, uproariously witty and funny, and seriously passionate about the trans-Tasman relationship, at all levels.
Neither man was particularly awed by the collection of political, business, cultural, and media heavyweights arrayed before them. This included seven Australian ministers and MPs led by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and similarly large number of New Zealand ministers led by Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen.
Allen and McGeoch ran tight, but fair ship. On their watch, sessions began and ended on time, there was plenty of scope for free and frank discussion, and at no stage did things get out of hand (as you’d expect with attendees of that calibre).
There were occasions during the forum when it threatened to become yet another high-level talkfest. Lots of nice talk was issuing forth, but not much in the way of initiatives was being promoted and discussed.
McGeoch and Allen changed that halfway through the second day when they started motivating delegates to come up with concrete proposals to advance the relationship, particularly in terms of taking the Single Economic Market being negotiated by both countries to new level of progress.
Gillard was highly impressive. At the relatively tender age of 46, she is Australia’s first woman deputy prime minister, and the first foreign-born person to hold the position as well (she was born in Wales). She is polished, confident, engaging, and articulate, and presents as being unfazed by her awesome responsibilities. (As well as being deputy prime minister, Gillard holds the education, and employment and workplace relations portfolios and is also minister for social inclusion.)
She has had to step into the acting prime minister’s role several times since Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister late last year. This was the case during the forum, as Rudd was in Indonesia.
Our Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand’s relationship with Australia was extremely important and the attendance of politicians and business leaders from both sides of the Tasman at the forum was testimony to that.
“Our two countries work together very closely across broad range of foreign, trade, aid, and security policy issues to promote shared interests, and to maximise our impact regionally and internationally.
“The Leadership Forum plays major role in bringing together key stakeholders from business, government, academia, and the media to sustain and invigorate the relationship, and to explore its future development,” he said.
My sense of these occasions is while the plenary sessions are undeniably valuable, the real value lies within the ability of key players from both countries to canvass issues of mutual interest over cup of coffee or glass of wine.
The number of small group meetings I saw around the margins of the forum was testament to that.

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