Sinclair slides out as London’s man in Wellington

The UK’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, Jonathan Sinclair, is heading back to London after three years in the role. Sinclair spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the “adult” relationship between the two countries and what Brexit means for our existing ties.

Comparing global diplomacy to playground equipment seems an unlikely analogy, but it’s what Jonathan Sinclair uses to describe his swiftly diminishing days in Wellington.

“If you’re in a four-year posting or a three-year posting, the first year and a half, two years, it’s like walking up a seesaw: a little bit gingerly, you’re kind of getting your balance, then somehow at the midway point, the seesaw flips and you just slide quickly to the end.”

Sinclair’s slide to the bottom comes after three years as the UK’s top man in New Zealand.

A constant presence around Parliament, Sinclair has made a point of making his face known to locals.

“The trick is to get out and about and meet as many people as possible ... you tend to have the best postings and have the best outcomes when you’ve got relationships. “

That included a 12-day round trip to Pitcairn Island for a four-day visit in his role as its governor (for the record, a flight from Wellington to Auckland, then to Papeete, then to Mangareva, then a 40-hour boat trip to Pitcairn - and back again).

To hammer home the point, Sinclair turns to a phrase picked up from his 40 hours of Te Reo lessons: “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.”

A more adult relationship

His use of the Māori language is just one sign of how the relationship between the UK and New Zealand has changed since colonial times.

Sinclair says the countries are on more of an equal footing these days, treating each other as partners.

“Obviously I wasn’t here in the 50s or 60s, but if what I’ve been told is accurate, the UK-New Zealand relationship was perhaps a little bit like a parent-child [one].

“Now it’s nothing like that, and I think it’s a richer and more compatible relationship for being an adult-to-adult one, and that’s testament to the changes and the development that New Zealand’s gone through, and so with the UK as well.”

New Zealand is viewed in the UK as a strong friend and trusted ally, he says, with shared views in the foreign policy and the defence space.

“The reaction after Brexit [in New Zealand] was very much - from business, from communities, from political circles - ‘OK, UK, she'll be right, because we’re alright, New Zealand, and look what we’ve done over the last 30 years. And you, UK, can learn from that, so let’s talk.’”

There has also been what Sinclair describes as “a very rich two-way pinching of each other’s best ideas”: the UK used New Zealand’s Cabinet Manual as a template in creating its own version, and in turn provided us with the source code for its gov.uk website to help the Government develop its govt.nz version.

Sinclair says the adult approach has shone through in the fallout from the UK’s surprise decision to leave the European Union.

“The reaction after Brexit [in New Zealand] was very much - from business, from communities, from political circles - ‘OK, UK, she'll be right, because we’re alright, New Zealand, and look what we’ve done over the last 30 years. And you, UK, can learn from that, so let’s talk.’”

For its part, Great Britain is keen to learn about New Zealand’s approach to trade: “How did you establish your trade identity, how did you carry out trade strategy, and how did you do free trade agreements?”

Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade visited London last year to provide some advice, while former Kiwi diplomat Crawford Falconer has been appointed as Britain’s first chief trade negotiation adviser.

Does the motherland still matter?

Whether the UK is as important to New Zealand on the trade front is another matter: the UK’s decision to join the European Economic Community in 1973 shut out Kiwi exporters and forced them to turn to alternative markets.

While Asia and Australia have increased in importance, Sinclair argues the UK still has a vital role as New Zealand’s fifth-biggest trading partner.

“That says to me there’s a good relationship but one that can be built on, and I think as we move towards a free trade agreement we’ll see those numbers pick up.”

When exactly that free trade agreement can be signed off remains to be seen: while the UK’s international trade secretary Liam Fox says New Zealand is near the top of the list post-Brexit, Sinclair says nothing can formally be done until the divorce is complete in March 2019.

“Once we’ve left the EU and only once we’ve left EU can we negotiate free trade agreements.”

However, he says there is a chance for the two countries to start some informal talks.

“To have another voice for free trade is really important, so we really want to get our schedule sorted, get onto the WTO, and be a really good ally for New Zealand on the world stage.”

One early bone of contention has been a proposal to change the way European tariff rate quotas apply to countries like New Zealand post-Brexit.

While the issue has raised hackles here, Sinclair is quick to point out the current proposal to divide up the quotas is “not take it or leave it, very much a basis for discussion”.

That raises the broader issue of whether there are any further nasty surprises in store, but he says the UK is keen to be part of the “vanguard for free trade”.

“To have another voice for free trade is really important, so we really want to get our schedule sorted, get onto the WTO, and be a really good ally for New Zealand on the world stage.”

That of course requires a successful Brexit deal with the EU - something Sinclair is hopeful will happen despite an impasse in recent months.

“As with any negotiation, there are bumps and hollows in all of that, but I think we will get to a deal.”

Kiwi migration to UK 'cherished'

Another area of concern for New Zealand has been whether there will be any further restrictions on Kiwis’ ability to migrate to the UK and people-to-people links.

Sinclair says the UK “really does cherish that link with New Zealand” and is unlikely to crack down, rattling off some statistics to prove his point: “There are 50 per cent more Kiwis and Aussies living and working in the UK than there were 20 years ago.”

Only 4500 to 5000 young Kiwis currently apply for the 13,000 youth mobility (aka working holiday) visas that are available.

“Also, New Zealand has more per capita places than Australia and Canada, which given your love of per-capita Olympics tables I know that’s important.”

While some (including Boris Johnson) have backed the idea of free movement to and from the UK for a “Commonwealth migration bloc”, Sinclair says it may be best to focus on the current routes that Kiwis can access.

“I think I probably haven't done a good enough job of getting that story out, so I think it's best to focus on what’s practical and possible and make sure people take advantage of that.”

Not that he has many regrets. There are more than few highlights though: the Lions tour (“25,000 Brits outsinging the All Black fans”), the installation of a British-New Zealand war memorial at the Pukeahu National War Memorial, the “incredibly memorable and touching” repatriation ceremonies of Maori remains at Te Papa.

Sinclair is reluctant to offer too much advice to his successor Laura Clarke, but is confident in the strength of the relationship will outlast his time in the country.

“We’ll continue to be very close friends: in the Pacific, Afghanistan, wherever, UK and New Zealand are often working together on foreign policy and defence issues. The Antarctic, illegal fishing, you name it, we’re together.”

This article has been updated to correct the location of Papeete.

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