Johnson's japes fail to mask immigration concerns

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses a crowd at the Pukeahu war memorial park in Wellington. Photo: Marty Melville.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson put forth the usual platitudes during his first day in New Zealand, but he has already faced some tougher questions over his country’s attitude to Kiwi arrivals. Sam Sachdeva reports.

It’s no wonder Boris Johnson’s hair is often the focus of critics and fans alike.

The blonde mop top was instantly distinguishable as he made his way through the crowd at Wellington’s Pukeahu war memorial park.

Dishevelled in a vaguely elegant way, the styling matches Johnson’s reputation as a colourful character, the author of a biography of Winston Churchill who is fond of Latin.

The UK Foreign Secretary is in New Zealand for a two-day visit, seeing the sights in quake-hit Kaikoura before unveiling a new NZ-UK memorial at Pukeahu and laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

Johnson has never been afraid of a controversial quote or two, and flirted with danger when speaking about getting to grips with a Maori customary greeting.

"Thank you for teaching me the hongi, which I think is a beautiful form of introduction, though it might be misinterpreted in a pub in Glasgow if you were to try it."

Yet the apparent reference to a “Glasgow kiss” (British slang for a headbutt) was as controversial as it got, with Johnson praising New Zealand’s “tradition of strong female leadership which we have back home" and describing the landscape as the "most mind-blowingly, mind-numbingly beautiful country that I've ever seen".

During the Kaikoura leg - complete with a crayfish tasting - the Foreign Secretary also thanked representatives of Takahanga Marae for looking after British tourists stuck in the town after last November’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

"All I want to say is, thank you again from the bottom of my heart for your kindness and the way you reached out to them and the way you looked after them.

"I know they slightly overstayed their welcome. You obviously know how to lay on a good meal. I'm told they ate you out of house and home, they ate heaps of crayfish and really didn't want to go.”

Questions over immigration

Of interest to our Government is whether Johnson and his Conservative government are willing to return the favour.

The traditional OE to the UK has come under threat in recent years, with the government cutting visas for skilled migrants and introducing new income rules. Would-be emigrants have also complained about delays in processing their visas, leading to cancelled flights and lost money.

In his former life as Mayor of London, Johnson expressed enthusiasm for the concept of a “bilateral mobility zone”, allowing New Zealanders and Australians to more easily live and work in the UK.

He shared similar sentiments on Monday, telling media: "I don’t want to overpromise at this stage, but clearly it’s our ambition to continue to attract people of talent and we want to have a regime for New Zealand that is as free and open as we can possibly make it."

Brexit would lead to "a greater equalisation in our treatment of people" while allowing traditional friends like New Zealand to be rewarded - although Johnson noted there was already a decent visa arrangement for Kiwis heading to the UK.

"We think there’s a great opportunity: the whole point is that the UK is not turning in as a result of Brexit, we’re turning out, we want to engage with the world again in a way we haven’t been able to do for 43 years, and we want to engage above all with our old friends and partners like New Zealand."

"I think we want to be fair to everybody and do it in a way that was controlled, but there’s no question that we have very very positive feelings towards people who come from New Zealand and contribute hugely to our country."

Yet as Prime Minister Bill English noted after visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May, no policy wins are likely until Brexit negotiations with the European Union are wrapped up.

The same applies for a free trade deal, although the UK has confirmed New Zealand and Australia will be first off the rank for negotiations and Johnson was keen to talk up an agreement.

"We think there’s a great opportunity: the whole point is that the UK is not turning in as a result of Brexit, we’re turning out, we want to engage with the world again in a way we haven’t been able to do for 43 years, and we want to engage above all with our old friends and partners like New Zealand."

One distraction for Johnson and other ministers is internal ructions within the Conservatives: May is vulnerable after her party lost its majority at the June snap election, and the foreign secretary is among the potential successors jockeying for position.

That may explain a slightly sour note after the Pukeahu visit: media were informed that Johnson would take questions after a visit to the Dominion Museum, only to be informed that his press secretary Simon McGee had decided his boss had had enough public engagement for the day.

Wanting to avoid overexposure at the expense of May? In the end, Johnson did take questions from one reporter, but the message had already come across.

He’s not out of the firing line, either: Johnson will face questions from the media on Tuesday morning after meeting Prime Minister Bill English, and it’s fair to assume his government’s attitude to Kiwis will again be up for discussion.