Turkey and New Zealand enjoy relations with deep historical roots, and the country’s ambassador to Ankara sees good prospects for boosting bilateral trade through “greater engagement”.

Moreover, there is a lot to learn from the island nation’s success in combatting the novel coronavirus.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Ambassador Wendy Hinton talked about Wellington’s COVID-19 strategy, its response to the 2019 Christchurch terror attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent historic re-election, refugees, climate change, and bilateral relations.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Anadolu Agency: New Zealand’s response against COVID-19 has been very effective. How did you do it?

Wendy Hinton: We have been successful since we have the advantage of being a small island nation at the bottom of the world.

We don’t see it in those terms; nevertheless, we’re a long way from anywhere and we have a complete maritime border. It was relatively easier for us to shut down those borders, and devise strict protocols around people coming into New Zealand.

Initially, the borders were shut completely, so you could not actually enter New Zealand. Then, there was some relaxation; people could come in but they had to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

They had to get tested for COVID-19 during that time. And once they had two negative tests, they could leave isolation, and come into New Zealand.

We were very quick and put in lockdown and protocols around the entire country. Initially for our larger cities, but it was extended, in different degrees, to the whole country.

So, in Auckland for example where there were some community transmission cases, and to make sure they were held at bay, we had a strict level of lockdown for a few weeks. People found that quite tough but that is what helped contain COVID-19 in New Zealand.

We presently have about 66 active cases of COVID-19, and most of those, in fact, all of those have been detected at the border among people coming by air into the country.

Q: The pandemic has badly hit the global economy. What is the situation in New Zealand?

Hinton: As it has been in Turkey, it has been tough on a number of businesses who have been dependent on a consistent income throughout the year. So, during the lockdowns, a number of businesses have suffered from economic losses.

The government has put in place some wage subsidies to ensure continuity, and some regional development work to try and stimulate businesses in the region. We have tried to stimulate tourism, our top export.

International education is another big earner for New Zealand. So, there have been some small moves to try and keep that going through online education.

Although we’re going to suffer a small loss on predicted economic growth for the year, it’s been tough on individual businesses. We’ve tried to maintain it at a reasonable level through a bit of intervention.

Q: Should others take a leaf from your book in stemming the novel disease?

Hinton: Everybody is completely different and New Zealand is in an advantageous situation, but what New Zealand has done is… is go hard, go fast, we locked down the country quickly. That was our first step.

We took internally, with purpose, strong lockdown measures initially to contain it. We have good, decisive leadership, that’s been an advantage.

Turkey-New Zealand relations

Q: Turkey and New Zealand enjoy relations dating back to the battle of Gallipoli. The challenging past has now turned into an opportunity. How do you think it has been achieved, and what are the plans?

Hinton: It was a challenging start to the relationship, just over 100 years ago. But even then, New Zealanders often say… colleagues in the Defense Ministry for example often talk about this that New Zealand troops didn’t really want to be there.

Many of those young guys that came to Gallipoli not knowing actually where they were because they were just sort of cannon fodder for the wider contingent of British troops.

We were one of the allied nations but really, we became involved in the war because we were a British colony, and the soldiers got shipped off to the other side of the world and ended up in Gallipoli… no idea where they were.

It was sad for everybody because they didn’t want to be fighting Turkish people who were warm and friendly at a personal level.

After the war, I think that was quickly recognized even when people went back to find the dead and bury them. They found that warmth of Turkish hospitality immediately even within weeks or months of the conflict of that campaign of the war coming to an end.

But over time that friendship has developed and every year, outside of the COVID-19 times, a lot of New Zealanders and Australians come to Gallipoli for annual commemorations on the 25th of April.

It’s a huge thing in New Zealand folklore, to be able to come and walk the path that predecessors had walked. Many people have had family members who served in those troops in 1915, who were wounded, who died, who were otherwise scarred by that experience.

So, it has become a big thing for New Zealanders to be able to do that, and every year, they are welcomed by our Turkish hosts.

Without question, we are given huge support, welcomed every year, and this is a continuum. There’s never any question about it. And we greatly appreciate that.

What we want to do is turn this friendship into something more substantive; we’ve got a small trading relationship between us.

We think the whole relationship should be raised through greater engagement, and we’re doing that.

Right now, we’re engaging in a number of webinars involving DEIK — the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey. They’ve been very supportive.

New Zealand and Turkish companies have been brought together, online, and it’s beginning to really get a little bit of momentum so I’m looking forward to that.

It’s also interesting to see how some countries, Turkey’s friends in the region, are beginning to be part of this equation. They’re interested in working with, in a sort of trilateral relationship.

We have been working hard on that and we’ve got partners back in New Zealand and different agencies such as the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Export New Zealand, Business New Zealand, and a number of other agencies as well as private sector companies working with us to try and really build that relationship to a level delivered it should be.

Q: Are there any specific sectors you’re focusing on?

Hinton: New Zealand is a leader in agro-technology, and we’ve been working with DEIK in the past on this and other agricultural enterprises here; they’re very interested in New Zealand’s agricultural high tech.

We have some specialized communications technology… we’re good at renewables, sustainable energy. There is a range of other niche areas as well.

We have a company for example on the North Island of New Zealand, which sells frost fans for horticultural and they are selling successfully to Turkish customers.

It’s interesting to see, when you bring people together, how these niche markets develop.

Turkish businesses can work with agencies like DEIK to be put in touch with New Zealand companies, and with our trade agency.

We just have to start at this level of promoting business-to-business links, and then it will just gradually grow. It is happening to some extent but we would like it to happen more.

We’re also going to have some joint economic discussions early next year. It’s a government-to-government process called the JEC — the Joint Economic Commission.

We’re going to have some online discussions, and we hope to set some new goals, a solid basis for companies wanting to do business in both countries.

Christchurch attack and Jacinda Ardern’s personal touch

Q: New Zealand’s response to the 2019 Christchurch attack was hailed across the world, especially in the Muslim world. Any lessons for others in dealing with rising Islamophobia?

Hinton: You’ll have seen from the leadership of our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that she approached in a very emotional way; she has strong emotional intelligence, and that told her just to go there, be with the people, relate to them one to one… No big speeches, just this sort of personal approach… that worked well.

Everybody appreciated it, and the whole world could see that New Zealand is almost as devastated as the rest of the Muslim world.

She and her team really picked up what it was all about, what it meant to the families affected and there were a lot of people… 51 people were killed but there were a lot of other people injured… the whole Muslim community in New Zealand was deeply affected by it. Not to mention the wider world.

So, I think it was just an approach at a personal level and that was, as it should be because it’s how people feel it. It’s an emotional situation.

Q: Turkey was the first country to respond to the Christchurch terror attack. Vice President Fuat Oktay led a delegation along with the foreign minister. He met the victims and the government. Solidarity is key here…

Hinton: That’s the only way to deal with it through solidarity. You have to build a wall of mutual support, and New Zealand very much appreciated the Turkish delegation’s arrival.

Vice President Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu strongly supported our prime minister and her team. That was a good message to be sending out to the world.

Q: Amid the pandemic, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern got another decisive mandate in the October general elections. How is her continuity relevant for New Zealand and its international partners?

Hinton: It is a very significant development for the government because it does not need coalition partners now. But it has chosen to give some important roles to the Green Party, who were one of their previous coalition partners; so, they are looking at continuity, I think that’s a big thing for the country.

They have got continuity of personnel, and they’ve got more experience or more experienced team now so they bring that into play. All that also translates into the multilateral arena, which is important for our government and our new foreign minister.

The more experience the government can bring into those institutions, the better.

Q: Ardern picked an indigenous woman as the foreign minister in her second Cabinet. The committee is diverse. Will it have an impact on the country’s image? Are you excited to work with her?

Hinton: It is fantastic that we’ve got a growing number of women in our Cabinet. Eight out of 20 ministerial roles are women, and that’s exceptional. It’s the highest number of women in any Cabinet. I’m thrilled to see that sort of progressive attitude beginning to play out in the highest circles of government.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is an indigenous woman. She’s not our first indigenous foreign minister. That was our previous Foreign Minister Mr. Winston Peters who is also a Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous community).

But she is the first Maori woman as a foreign minister.

So, it’s a strong powerful combination, and I think many people were surprised to see this appointment.

It’s a fine choice for New Zealand which has to play out its goals in the international arena. We have to work with other countries in the multilateral sphere, and she is a very strong multilateralist.

Q: Pluralism is surely a boon for the nation…

Hinton: We have many ethnicities that make up the face of New Zealand’s five million people, and we all get along.

It brings both challenges and problems with it. Those are addressed because we have grown up in a diverse society.

Now, it’s much more diverse when I grew up… there would be some children at school with me who were from Maori or different backgrounds.

My kids, when they went to school they grew up with even more diverse classmates. Now, it’s just part of what we are; it’s part of the fabric of our society and nobody questions it.

Q: Climate change is a global phenomenon. What measures is New Zealand taking to tackle this changing global weather system?

Hinton: New Zealand is focused on renewable energy, and we’ve been doing that for a number of years. I was surprised to find out that the figure for renewable energy used in New Zealand is 80%.

So, we would like to get that even further up, closer to 100%.

New Zealand’s main problem in terms of climate change is the methane emissions from the agricultural sector. We don’t have a huge industrial sector, but we do have a big agricultural sector.

So, we launched special initiatives a few years ago to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s an ongoing problem for everybody and it’s an ongoing problem for us, but we are working consistently to try and deal with it in our own part of the world.

Support for refugees in Turkey

Q: The world, especially the Middle East, is caught up in years-long conflicts. You have been in Turkey for quite some time now and in the neighborhood, we have Syria… Turkey is hosting more than 3.7 Syrian million refugees. How has New Zealand contributed to the cause?

Hinton: It is a huge burden for Turkey, and that is well recognized by all of Turkey’s global partners.

We certainly do our bit to try as a small nation to contribute through multilateral programs to refugee issues through the UNHCR, UNICEF, World Food Programme, and so on.

We built four schools in southeastern Turkey for refugee children, trying to make sure that at least these kids have the education to have prospects ahead.

We all have to work together and do our bit.

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