Prime Minister Harper in New Zealand for talks on trade, world hot spots

Stephen Harper is meeting today with his New Zealand counterpart in the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister since Jean Chretien made the lengthy trip exactly 19 years ago.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Stephen Harper is meeting today with his New Zealand counterpart in the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister since Jean Chretien made the lengthy trip exactly 19 years ago.

Harper and 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 will honour New Zealand war casualties by laying a wreath at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in a noontime ceremony.

His 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.

The only sore spot in the Canada-New Zealand relationship is Canada’s sky-high tariffs on foreign dairy products.

New Zealand is the world’s biggest dairy exporter and is pressuring Canada to slash tariffs. The tiny nation of four million even objected to Canada’s inclusion in TransPacific Partnership talks three years ago because of the Canadian supply management system.

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.

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