Politics

Island hopping with Bill English

It's not entirely clear why Prime Minister Bill English would spend this week island-hopping from Rarotonga to Niue to Tonga.

He's got just over 100 days until a general election and is spending four of them taking the RNZAF's Boeing 757 for a spin and collecting floral garlands while keeping our close Pacific neighbours top of his agenda.

That's 4 percent of the survival time as he bids for the rare goal of a fourth term for a National-led government.

This is the annual Pacific ministerial mission and English is new to his chair, and new to much of the world and regional stages worked so assiduously by his predecessor John Key. The trip was already a fixture months ago and it was taken as read that our new PM would front.

English landed last night in Rarotonga - his first visit to the Cooks - with a delegation of politicians, diplomats, business and Pacific community luminaries, to be welcomed by the Cook Islands Premier Henry Puna.

Also aboard were Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee, Pacific Issues Minister Alfred Ngaro and a mix of National, Labour, Green, and Māori Party MPs.

While Labour's top brass skipped the Pacific mission this time, presumably focusing at home in Wellington on ways to boost their party fortunes in the lee of National's lead in the polls, three minor party leaders ate into their diaries for the cause.

New Zealand First's Winston Peters is a former foreign minister who knows the optimal time to perfect his tan before an election campaign and United Future's Peter Dunne and the Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox are also here.

English is the sort of politician who you'd imagine would get antsy when caught up in a diplomatic road trip when he could be knocking off important domestic priorities. The eight years as finance minister would surely have made him impatient to be back dealing with the pressing inbox of government.

This is a big week at home, too, for party leaders of a certain type. He will miss one of rural New Zealand's annual highpoints, as the Pacific trip clashes with the National Agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek near Hamilton.

Elsewhere, Labour will be making hay while its immigration policy (cutting migrant numbers by 20,000 to 30,000 a year) shines.

Unlike others, English is too early in his premiership to cherish the status of being an international statesman as highly as the nuts and bolts of domestic governing and the constant task of keeping the gods of opinion polling happy.

But he is also a realist and is aware of the importance of not focusing on the opportunity costs - the things he has not been able to do by doing this - and is instead doing all he can to forge strong ties with our close Pacific allies and family.

He is envoy-in-chief in these parts and needs to play the role New Zealand has always sought within Polynesia (and particularly in the Cooks and Niue, for which it has constitutional responsibilities). Moreover, as China keeps stepping up its development aid, and the America of President Donald Trump suggests it wants to counter that influence in the Pacific, New Zealand needs to be the influencer it assumes that it is.

Today English has formal talks with Puna, who oversees a country with 13,000 residents and 62,000 living in New Zealand, before an announcement on an NZ aid project and an evening reception.

Tomorrow his Air Force ride heads to Niue, landing him on 'the rock' for long enough to hold talks with PM Sir Toke Talagi and a visit to an NZ-funded hotel venture before re-boarding for Tonga.

In Nuku'alofa, English will visit the royal palace for a meeting with King Tupou VI and hold talks with the Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pōhiva.

Many of those on the delegation will gain a deeper understanding of challenges in the Pacific. 

It is the only region of the world in which New Zealand matters, for example being the leading aid donor in all three countries and the biggest source of imports and biggest export market for each.

Many in English' s group arrived at the Edgewater Hotel on Rarotonga just in time to see the second half of the Highlanders vs British and Irish Lions match - on a big screen for scores of Kiwi tourists. Again, New Zealand is the largest source of tourist dollars, which in this case (and in Niue) is actual Kiwi currency too.

So the ties are strong, as ever. English is just the latest New Zealand leader to give them their due. In itself, it may not be a vote winner at home but it has the benefit of positive optics: the welcomes and honour accorded him, the diversions of multi-party unity in island-style shirts and a chance, personally, to re-charge.

As Newshub's Patrick Gower would intone ominously at the end of an election buildup story: "There are ...101 days to go".

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