I am pleased to present this annual report on the Council’s activities, my fourth as Council Chair.
This year’s annual meeting takes place at a time when, in the words of US Ambassador Bill McCormick, New Zealand’s relationship with the United States is “the best it’s been in decades”. The Council’s membership can take considerable satisfaction that the initiatives we have taken in the last two years have contributed directly to this improved relationship. If the first US NZ Partnership Forum held in Washington in April 2006 provided some much needed impetus for both Governments to commit to strengthening the relationship, I think it no exaggeration to claim that the second Forum, held in Auckland on 9, 10 and 11 September, succeeded in confirming that the relationship has been taken to a new level. A full report on the outcome of the second Forum will be presented at this meeting but it is clear that the event exceeded expectations in terms of the high level participation from the United States, the quality of the discussion and the media interest it generated. My thanks go to my fellow Co-Chairs, Ambassador Clayton Yeutter, Governor Tom Vilsack and Rt Hon Mike Moore and to all delegates from both countries who made this a memorable event.
The US NZ 2007 Partnership Forum was the most significant gathering of American and New Zealand government and business leaders ever to have taken place in New Zealand. Notwithstanding an unexpected change of venue imposed on us at the last minute, due to the threat of protest action, the Forum proceeded smoothly at the Hilton Hotel with 53 New Zealand delegates, 47 American delegates, 20 partners and upward of 30 observers. The Forum was covered in over 100 press articles and 46 broadcast media reports. As well as the discussion in the business sessions, there were three social events as well as a most moving commemoration of the 9/11 tragedy at Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, a partners’ programme and a leisure programme. The Forum represented an extraordinary organisational challenge in terms of human and financial resources, particularly for an organisation of our size. I must extend heartfelt thanks to the Forum’s generous sponsors, to those government agencies who participated in the Task Force which planned the event and to our event organiser Dazzle. It is a credit to those involved that the event was brought in not only with a highly positive outcome but also on budget, once the additional costs arising from the change in venue are factored in.
Feedback on the event from the American side has been warm and enthusiastic. Forum Co- Chair Clayton Yeutter writes that “your second Forum was a hit with everyone from the United States ! You and your entire New Zealand team should be very proud of what you have accomplished … you’ve raised the bar mighty high for the next Forum in Washington DC !” Ambassador McCormick writes “I said in my concluding remarks that I wondered whether the (second Forum) would be able to top the first Partnership Forum in Washington. Well, it did. Participation was terrific, and the discussions were very substantive. You’ve nicely laid the groundwork for the next Forum in Washington”.
This Forum has also served to confirm the NZ US Council as the pre-eminent organisation working to foster the relationship between the two countries. Developing New Zealand’s constituency in the United States has been the overriding objective of three visits made to Washington DC by our Executive Director in the course of last year, including at the time of the Prime Minister’s highly successful visit to Washington last March. These visits have also provided an opportunity to work closely with the US NZ Council: without this organisation and its active membership, and the tremendous advocacy and leadership of Council President, John Mullen, the relationship would simply not be at the level it is today. During the Prime Minister’s visit a former President of the US NZ Council, and its current Vice President, Fred Benson, was awarded an honorary MNZM, a fitting recognition of Fred’s work and the role of the Council today.
Enhancing New Zealanders’ understanding of the importance of the relationship is also a key concern. We have continued to be active in press and public commentary around the relationship and to maintain our informative website – www.nzuscouncil.com. Some further enhancements to the site are planned for the coming year. We have promoted understanding at parliamentary level by sponsoring the re-launch of the NZ US Parliamentary Friendship Group last November. In July we sponsored a visit to Washington by MPs Gerry Brownlee and Shane Jones, respectively Chair and Vice Chair, of the Parliamentary Friendship Group, who met with members of the Friends of New Zealand Congressional Caucus. The Council has also worked closely with several other organisations active in the relationship, including Fulbright NZ and the American Chamber of Commerce in New Zealand.
The Council’s strength comes from the support it enjoys in both public and private sectors. In the last year we have been fortunate not only in generating significant sponsorship for the Partnership Forum but in developing partnerships with some 25 organisations who provide the funding for the Council’s work. Our Advisory Board provides important moral support and strategic advice. The Council’s activities are directed by the Executive Committee and I am grateful to my fellow directors who have given their time so generously this year. I must also thank departing Board members Fiona Cooper Clarke and Fran O’Sullivan. Fran, in particular, was a driving force in establishing the Council and has been a Board member for some six years. I am delighted that both Fran and Fiona will continue to serve on the Advisory Board. I have also been pleased to welcome new member Simon Tucker to the Executive Board in the course of the year.
In the spirit of bipartisanship the Council enjoys close working relationships with both the Government and the Opposition. We continue to benefit from funding provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade which will be reviewed next year. The New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC and the US Embassy in Wellington are both very supportive of our objectives and programmes.
In July we welcomed Gabrielle Rush to the executive team as Associate Director resident in Auckland. Gabrielle comes to us from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade where she was most recently Deputy Director of the Americas division. She has already made a strong contribution at the Partnership Forum. We are fortunate that in Gabrielle and our Executive Director, Stephen Jacobi, we have talented individuals who are passionate about the relationship with the United States. To Stephen I must express my thanks for his expert advice and leadership as we have developed the Council’s programme for another year. Our executive team is supported by the Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce which provides administrative and financial services to the Council ensuring that our overheads are low and our operations represent value for money.
While we can all take some measure of credit for the success in rebuilding the NZ/US relationship it is clear that we still have work to do. In particular we must continue to advance New Zealand’s case for a free trade agreement which is now caught up in the ongoing debate about trade policy between the Administration and Congress. While resolution of this debate may be some time off, we must ensure this is not time wasted – we must continue to build the constituency, including, as discussed at the Partnership Forum, in relation to a new, and younger, generation of leaders, update the research on the FTA and develop new avenues of dialogue and co-operation. At our first meeting in 2008 the Board will be considering a new strategic plan, our earlier plan having taken us successfully to the implementation of the second Forum.
The Partnership Forum will convene again in Washington DC in early 2009, after elections in both our countries. We need to use the time between now and then to continue the work we have started and take the relationship to even greater heights, and bring closer the FTA which we know is in both our countries’ interest.