by Alanna Mackay, First Secretary at the Australian High Commission in Wellington
State Visits are usually very formal affairs, with lots of gilt and glitter. Every country has their own traditions, but a State Visit will more often than not involve a formal welcome, a black tie lunch or dinner, a wreath laying at an important memorial, and a series of cultural events. The host country wants to put on a show; the guests are on their best behaviour. Behind the scenes, officials will have worked out every single detail to make sure the visit goes off without a hitch.
But, with a relationship as close as Australia and New Zealand’s, you’d be forgiven for asking whether any of that is really necessary. We’re such great mates; wouldn’t it be possible to just get together for a barbecue? Why do we bother with all of the formalities?
I worked on plans for the Governor-General’s State Visit to New Zealand from 31 May to 3 June, I asked myself that question many times. However, while a barbecue would have been much easier to arrange, it would not have provided the right mix of public and private engagements that constitute the real value of a State Visit.
The Australia-NZ relationship is fundamentally built on personal connections. Nearly 650,000 New Zealanders live in Australia, and there were more than 2.6 million trips across the Tasman in 2016. We collaborate in virtually every field of endeavour.
During their three day visit, the Governor-General and Lady Cosgrove made some extraordinary connections with extraordinary New Zealanders.
There was James Norton, the New Zealand citizen who saved a man from drowning off a beach in Victoria. You can read more about his story here. Mr Norton risked his own life to save a complete stranger, and now that stranger has become a friend.
There was the team at the Takahanga Marae, who opened their doors to stranded tourists when the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake cut off the town. The marae prepared 10,000 meals in four days for the tourists and for the first responders.
There was the newest recruit into the NZ SAS Regiment. He has made the choice to risk his future to help protect New Zealand’s.
There was Sandy King and her quarantine dog Gadget, who work together to keep Ulva Island, one of New Zealand’s most spectacular pristine forests, safe from predators and introduced species.
These aren’t people we tend to meet in our everyday work as diplomats. They aren’t the officials charged with keeping the bilateral relationship on track. But they are among the best ambassadors for New Zealand – people with pride in their country and a willingness to share it with friends from overseas.
The formalities and diplomatic protocols were carefully planned to ensure that the Governor-General and Lady Cosgrove were given a real insight into the things that make New Zealand unique. They were welcomed by a moving pōwhiri at Government House in Wellington and shown the hospitality of the Takahanga Marae in Kaikoura. Alongside New Zealand Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and Sir David Gascoigne, they acknowledged the sacrifice of New Zealand and Australian soldiers in theatres of war. They were able to meet leaders in business and conservation efforts and they visited the founding documents on New Zealand on public display. At every turn, they were able to reinforce the close bond that stretches across the Tasman.
We wouldn’t have got all of that from a barbecue.