Nov 17, 2023 - News

What we know about Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's trade mission to Australia

Illustration of an Australia sticker on a briefcase.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is hoping to bring more than souvenirs back from Australia when he returns this weekend.

Driving the news: Walz spent the last week-plus leading a delegation of state officials and leaders from businesses and groups such as Delta and the Minnesota Farmers Union on Minnesota's first trade mission to the nation.

Why it matters: The goal is to strengthen economic and political ties with Australia, which is currently No. 13 on Minnesota's list of trade partners, with $438 million in exports and $141 million in imports in 2022.

What they're saying: "That half a billion dollars or so in trade that we do now ... the Australians made it very clear that will be a billion very quickly," Walz told WCCO Radio this week. "That's a good thing for Minnesota job creation."

Reality check: While such trips are popular for state leaders across the nation, drawing a direct line to an economic boost can be difficult given the complexities of global trade and the drawn-out timeline for deals to surface.

Yes, but: Brian McClung, who traveled on state missions to China, India, and Israel as a top aide to then-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the trips are an "important way to highlight Minnesota companies as potential partners and open doors."

  • "Many of the business leaders on our trade missions said they never would've been able to secure such high-level meetings except for the fact that they were on a Governor-led trade mission."

Zoom in: Much of this most recent trip's agenda was centered on relationship building via face-to-face gatherings, including meetings with Australian governmental officials, a roundtable on clean energy, and a reception with a guest list of 100-plus Australians.

  • Walz said executives at Australian tech companies that recently expanded to the state "brought along friends [to one event and] said, 'Look, this is a great place to do business."

What they're saying: Sri Zaheer, a professor and former dean of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, acknowledged that "hard metrics" are difficult to track.

  • But she said intangible impacts such as relationships forged and the morale boost the visits deliver for companies already working with the state make trade trips "totally worth it."
  • "It may not be an immediate payoff, but there's potential for partnerships that will be beneficial to Minnesota."

A spokesperson for Medical Alley, which sent a representative to Australia, echoed that view, saying while it's "hard to draw a straight line" between the trips and investments, such "missions are usually one part of developing relationships that mature over years."

Between the lines: Several higher ed leaders also joined the delegation. St. Cloud State officials used the trip to announce an expanded exchange program with an Australian university that's open to Native American and Indigenous students.

  • A spokesman for the U of M, which sent four representatives, said its goals were to explore research collaborations, technology development, teaching hospital practices, and student exchanges. Two U leaders gave a presentation aimed at recruiting international students.

Of note: A Department of Employment and Economic Development spokesperson said the state's total price tag for the trip won't be available until after it's completed. But participants from the business community pay their way, meaning taxpayers aren't on the hook for their travel.

  • A Walz spokesperson previously told journalists that attending the trip would cost just over $6,000 before flights. That price included a $4,000 fee to cover meetings, receptions, and transportation between events.

The intrigue: For participants, the missions may strengthen relationships both abroad and at home, via facetime with the governor and other top state officials in attendance.

What we're watching: Minneapolis Regional Chamber president Jonathan Weinhagen told us from Australia that there are "several very real prospects that are emerging from the current trip."

  • "Some of these are companies that have met with our peer regions and are giving us a more serious look because we took the time to come to them and learn about their needs."
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