AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Stephen Harper rubbed noses with Maori ceremonial warriors today in advance of a meeting with his New Zealand counterpart in the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister in 19 years.
Harper and his wife, Laureen, were greeted by New Zealand Gov. Gen. Jerry Mateparae on the lush grounds of his residence in suburban Auckland after the Maori performed a traditional challenge—called the wero or taki—used to determine whether a visitor comes in peace or hostility.
The prime minister rubbed noses with both a male and female elder in the traditional Maori greeting after taking in the boisterous ceremony.
He then travelled to the Auckland war memorial to lay a wreath.
Harper and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key have a warm relationship, meeting on the sidelines of various global events over the years, including in March in the Netherlands at the Nuclear Security Summit. Key also visited Canada four years ago.
The two men are both fiscal conservatives leading Commonwealth countries, and the nations share similar colonial and military histories.
Kiwi and Canuck soldiers fought together in conflicts that include both World Wars, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan.
Harper’s talks with Key are expected to focus on an array of topics that include trade, regional security, crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine and New Zealand’s deepening economic ties to China.
“We will discuss a range of international issues of mutual interest such as New Zealand’s recent appointment to the United Nations Security Council,” Key said in announcing Harper’s visit just over a week ago.
That’s a coveted spot Canada failed to secure in 2010. Canada backed New Zealand’s bid for a temporary seat on the powerful council.
Earlier Thursday, which is Friday in New Zealand, Key said he was keen to discuss domestic and international security with Harper following the recent slayings of Canadian soldiers by men who expressed jihadist sympathies.
He said Canada is in a “slightly more forward-leaning position” than New Zealand because it is taking part in international efforts to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Key added he wanted to hear exactly what Canada is doing and how things are progressing.
New Zealand has sent a handful of military personnel to Iraq to assess how best to help in the fight, but has ruled out any combat role.
Key also said he hopes to discuss the TransPacific Partnership, the proposed Asia-Pacific free-trade deal.
New Zealand is the world’s biggest dairy exporter and is pressuring Canada to slash exorbitant tariffs on foreign dairy products. The tiny nation of four million even objected to Canada’s inclusion in TPP discussions three years ago because of the Canadian supply management system.
It’s the only sore spot in the Canada-New Zealand relationship.
Harper’s trip to New Zealand is his first in any capacity, but his wife, Laureen, has a Kiwi connection.
Her first husband was New Zealander Neil Fenton, a tech company founder. Their marriage ended in 1988, five years before she married Harper.
Some New Zealanders have apparently not forgotten Laureen Harper, who’s accompanying her husband on his visit.
A customs official at the Auckland airport told a Canadian reporter entering the country that he once knew the 52-year-old Laureen Harper, describing her as “a lovely person” and asking how she was doing. He couldn’t be identified because of his work as a customs service agent.
The Canadian flag is also something of a celebrity in New Zealand these days.
Key wants to change the New Zealand flag to one that is more recognizably Kiwi, and has pointed to Canada’s switch to its famous Maple Leaf flag in 1965 as evidence that it won’t dishonour New Zealand’s war dead by having a new ensign.
The country’s citizens will vote on whether they want a new flag in a referendum next year. Key has suggested a silver fern—an iconic image in New Zealand, on par with Canada’s Maple Leaf—for a new emblem.
After Harper’s day in Auckland, he will then head to Brisbane, Australia, to attend the G20 leaders’ summit.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, another world leader who enjoys a close relationship with Harper, also visits New Zealand today on her way to Brisbane.
Harper arrived in Auckland following a gruelling 24-hour trek that involved two stops to refuel. It was the second trans-Pacific journey he’d made in three days after he returned to Ottawa from Beijing to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies.