Big issues on the table for trans-Tasman talks

The state of trans-Tasman relations has been a subject of hot debate in recent years. With Jacinda Ardern set to meet her Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney, Sam Sachdeva looks at the possible points of pressure and progress when the two sit down.

Are our trans-Tasman ties as tight as ever, or beginning to fray?

Ask Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and she'll tell you things are "absolutely fine".

"We have no relationship that mirrors the one we have with Australia," she told media this week as she prepared to head across the ditch to the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum.

Ardern's opponents beg to differ: National leader Simon Bridges, also heading to the forum, suggested that relations had been "strained by this Government's antagonistic approach to Australia".

Her comments at Apec last year about Australia's handling of the Nauru and Manus Island refugee crisis did appear to strike a nerve, with unnamed Australian intelligence officials gravely warning their media of increased "chatter" from people smugglers as a result.

A recent Australian analysis of the defence relations between the two countries warned of the risk New Zealand could become "a Western ally with Chinese characteristics".

So what will be on the minds of Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when they sit down to chat?

Expat rights, strategic approach on the agenda

The rights of New Zealanders living across the ditch will again be towards the top of the agenda - unsurprisingly given Australia's unwillingness to bend on its approach to deportations and other problem areas.

The tales of long-time Australian residents being sent to a "home" they have barely or never set foot in continue to mount up, with no sign of any dramatic change in policy.

On the Government's side, there is a pragmatism about the domestic pressures driving Australia's approach, and an understanding that there is little room to move.

However, Ardern has said she will still advocate forcefully for the rights of Kiwi expats.

One area of focus could be the so-called "pathway to citizenship" allowing some New Zealanders to become Australians, praised as a win by John Key and his National government.

Up-take has been lower than anticipated, perhaps in part due to the high costs and restrictions on eligibility, and it would make sense for Ardern to target some tweaks to the process to smooth the way for applicants.

Australia has been hawkish in the extreme when it comes to China's growing power, introducing legislation intended to curb foreign interference, shying away from the country's Belt and Road Initiative, and publicly speaking out against the country.

The two countries' diverging paths in navigating the rapidly-changing political climate may also come up for discussion.

Australia has been hawkish in the extreme when it comes to China's growing power, introducing legislation intended to curb foreign interference, shying away from the country's Belt and Road Initiative, and publicly speaking out against the country.

New Zealand has been far more cautious, sticking largely to boilerplate rhetoric about the importance of the rules-based international system.

Australia has aligned itself with a new vision of "the Indo-Pacific" and joined the Quad, a strategic alliance with India, Japan and the United States at least in part designed as a counterweight to China.

New Zealand has so far stuck to the traditional Asia-Pacific model, although how - or whether - we fit within the Indo-Pacific is likely to be a topic of discussion between Ardern and Turnbull.

Behind the scenes, some suggest New Zealand's reluctance to speak out publicly about China should not be mistaken as a lack of private concern.

Australia's outspokenness may not be sustainable, as made clear by a report in The Australian that the Chinese government is beginning to put the squeeze on their Australian counterparts.

Points of positivity

But as former Australian prime ministerial advisor Allan Gyngell has noted, the two countries will have to work closely together to ensure they continue to reap the benefits of an aligned approach to their backyard.

That is particularly important in the Pacific, where China's increased use of soft power through concessional loans and infrastructure building has not gone unnoticed.

In a speech outlining New Zealand's plans for a Pacific reset, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters made a point of praising Australia for its strong leadership in the region.

Talks of a new low in the Anzac relationship are overblown; Gyngell was right when he noted there have historically been as many "barneys" as bouquets between the two countries.

The last government's request for greater consultation and consideration from their Australian counterparts seems to have made some impact, with our Government kept in the loop over an ultimately unsuccessful proposal to change the tertiary education fees policy.

A scrap with the Queensland government over changes to its procurement policy which could breach the Closer Economic Relations agreement are being quietly dealt with behind the scenes, instead of in the public arena.

There may be some areas of polite disagreement when the pair face the media, but it seems safe not to expect any fireworks - unless they're part of Sydney's Mardi Gras Parade, which Ardern will just miss out on seeing.

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