APEC 2020: Microsoft president Brad Smith hails New Zealand as 'beacon of hope' in conversation with Ardern

Microsoft president Brad Smith has hailed New Zealand as a "beacon of hope" while hosting a virtual APEC meeting as he spoke to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

"I'm not just delighted - I'm honoured, to be joined virtually with one of the world's great leaders coming from another part of the Pacific region," Smith said on Friday as he welcomed Ardern to the virtual APEC summit hosted by Malaysia. 

"Prime Minister, I think I should first say congratulations to you on an election, but perhaps more importantly to you and 5 million New Zealanders. I think you all have been a beacon of hope in a year that clearly has needed one."

Hosting the summit from Microsoft's headquarters in Seattle, Washington, Smith praised Ardern for her leadership in dealing with the Christchurch terror attack and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as her climate change advocacy. 

"It may seem like a decade ago, but it was only a year and a half ago that you had to address - as the world watched and supported - the terrible aftermath of the terrorist attack and the tragedy in Christchurch."

Smith said what was "so striking" was how Ardern used the tragedy on March 15, 2019, to bring the world together and take action. 

He praised Ardern's partnership with French President Emmanuel Macron to spearhead the Christchurch Call, a voluntary commitment from governments and online providers intended to thwart terrorist and violent extremist content online, after the terrorist streamed the atrocity online. 

Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube, as well as Australia, Canada, the UK, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Norway and Sweden are among the more than 60 signatories so far. 

Ardern said the silver lining to the tragedy was that it encouraged governments and tech sector leaders to take collective action - turning the terrorist's advantage of global connectedness against him.  

"We needed to take that same borderless approach and collaborative approach to address the problem itself," Ardern said. "That's why for us, regulation was never going to solve our problems. We needed to be able to mobilise very, very quickly in a dynamic way and not as Government but as NGOs and as tech companies, for a common solution."

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: YouTube / APEC 2020

Smith also touched on New Zealand's response to COVID-19 and building back economically.  

Ardern admitted there is "no cost-free response" but she said there was a positive sign to come out of the weeks-long lockdown in March and April. 

"Some reports and surveys have estimated that within a period of lockdown that we had in New Zealand which was several weeks, we saw the equivalent of five years' worth of digital transformation in that short period of time," she said. 

"The impact of that towards our economy, to productivity will be of immeasurable benefit coming through the other side of COVID so we want to find ways to continue to support - with less pain - that kind of digital transformation and I believe other APEC economies will be in the same place."

Smith then went on to discuss climate change. 

"I think it's fair to say that this is a decade as a whole that will probably be defined by climate issues. It may be a century that is defined by climate issues more than anything else. And of course, carbon is something else that doesn't respect borders - it spreads around the world in the atmosphere."

He asked Ardern how businesses can best contribute to helping tackle climate change. 

Ardern said despite New Zealand representing less than 1 percent of global emissions, each nation needs to play their part. She said the impact of climate change is already being felt in the Pacific. 

"Some parts of the Pacific this is not a hypothetical - they are already seeing their lives and their homes threatened. So it does require that collective responsibility," Ardern said. 

"Our view is that we need to have our own house in order and so we worked very hard to try and model our expectations. We've set in our own domestic legislation the expectation of warming no greater than 1.5C. We have Zero Carbon legislation and an independent body that will assist the Government to set carbon budgets in order to reach our goals."

Ardern said by "getting our own house in order", it enables the Government to then go out into the business community and say 'join us'. 

"Yes, many legislative tools create trading systems that incentivise a response to climate change. But I think there can be no greater incentive than just basic values of humanity and working in partnership... we need the innovation of the private sector that will make all the difference."

New Zealand will host APEC in 2021 virtually.