PM’s Pacific mission accomplished
New Zealand Inc – the Prime Minister, ministers, political opponents, advisers, officials, business people and media – has been dropping in on our neighbours this week: the Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga.
In all three countries it was English’s first visit as PM. He took his new foreign minister Gerry Brownlee and sold the pairing as a continuation of the Key-McCully pairing with which the Pacific had become comfortable over the past eight years.
Tim Murphy went along for the ride, heard Bill English give mostly the same speech a dozen times, and watched and assessed the other participants and the countries and services involved.
He’s married to a Samoan, so starts with that advantage in the Pacific. He played up the ‘you’re small and feel left out, and I come from Dipton and feel your pain’ line in all three countries to great response. He also pointed out that while New Zealand was announcing multi-million aid projects and it appreciated getting thanked, the country had benefited from Cooks/Niue/Tongan migration over the years and needed to say thanks, too.
English displayed some traits that will be positive and some negative for when he starts campaigning proper at home. He was good with kids, as he should be as a father of six, sibling of 11, and in-law of 12 with numerous nieces and nephews.
He related well with Pasifika people, seeking out those who served, watched and entertained. He offered the Pacific Island handshake, that unspoken ‘what’s up Uso?’ grip and nudge, to teenagers and performed with unlikely distinction.
Some locals quietly let it be known John Key had been a nice smiling guy but a bit slick. English, the view went, was better with Pacific Islanders because he is a bit unassuming, a little low-key and able to use their languages and pray their prayers.
He tripped up, though, by over-recognising NZ First leader Winston Peters and the National cabinet ministers Gerry Brownlee and Alfred Ngaro – and under-recognising support partners United Future leader Peter Dunne and Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox. It was perhaps a sign English won’t let Peters go over to the red side without a fight, and perhaps a sign that Fox is not regarded as a heavyweight.
Cook Islands and its leader Henry Puna
The first stop of the trip saw the biggest spend by the NZ taxpayer: $15 million towards a new marine cable that will help connect the Cooks to the world, $8.8 million to helping fix the wastewater problems at the Muri Lagoon, a favourite tourism spot of New Zealanders, and a further $20 million over three years to improve wastewater services.
The Cooks government was happy. A boom in tourism, which has righted the economy, will be helped even more by both the internet improvements via the cable and a clean-up of the environment. Premier Henry Puna was the standout leader of the three, thoughtful and polished, open and realistic about his country’s links to New Zealand.
“Within this special relationship we have been able to do a lot of things the rest of the world thinks cannot be donel”
Little Niue, population 1700 on a good day, produced the most vibrant welcome and challenge at the airport – and then mustered around 200 people (representing about one in eight people on the island) to a business expo at the only big hotel, the Matavai Resort. English announced help for tourism and a communications cable.
No one does a mix of indigenous and Victorian pomp better than Tonga. Military and police brass bands marched and played, towns and villages laid out the bunting and the welcome billboards. Tonga melds the formality of a class system with a freewheeling zest for cheerleading – and crowds at a New Zealand-funded village power project which English visited and the ‘soft re-opening’ of the Taufaiva Stadium rugby field (it hasn’t been finished yet) were gloriously enthusiastic.
There was a suspicion that two women at the village visit were so pro-English they might have worked at the recipient power company.
The new cabinet minister (for Pacific Peoples), of Rarotongan heritage, came back from his ill-fated comments about social housing providers at a National Party conference – with a full-scale rehabilitation evident from English’ comments.
The PM praised Ngaro at all stops. “I was very pleased to have the opportunity to appoint him to the cabinet on the basis of his political skills and capacity and his ability to look to his community and all New Zealanders,”.
Ngaro also got to meet the King of Tonga in the inner sanctum of the Nuku’alofa palace.
The NZ First leader had good news about the Newshub poll (up to 9.4, his party’s highest in that survey for a while) and seemed to be at ease throughout. In the Cook Islands he was warmly received, a far cry from 20 years earlier when he was assailing the little country for its Winebox tax haven activities. They even gave him a ukulele, the same honour accorded cabinet ministers Ngaro and Gerry Brownlee. As a former foreign minister, he ‘has his own Pacific networks’ as one official said. And Peters wasn’t afraid to move off the official programme and do his own thing; often playing the man apart, not following along the formal party’s itinerary.
The famous bar on the Avarua, Rarotonga, waterfront made a tourist dollar or two on the Wednesday night when almost all the New Zealand delegation of 70 turned up for drinks, which went late, after the formal government reception. The informal late-nighter is said to have been inspired by Peters, who stood at the corner of the bar being feted by locals. English was there, late, mixing with the crowd but seemed to have sat on one beer for the duration.
The TVNZ Pacific reporter was welcomed, everywhere, as a celebrity - partly because One News is the default news programme for many – and also broke a prominent and politically uncomfortable news story in Tonga. Her piece on seasonal workers from Tonga misbehaving and being sent home for sex with underage girls prompted an apology from Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva to English during their bilateral meeting.
Both the Cook Islands and Niue reported some progress in ‘repopulation’ – their people starting to return from New Zealand now internet connectivity and tourism jobs had improved. Niue’s Premier Sir Toke Talagi said the long decline had been halted and was starting to head up. Niue has 1700 or so residents and 20,000 of its citizens living in New Zealand.
The Cooks might yet win a concession from English’s government on portability of national super to encourage more retirees to head back to the country.
The mission finished Friday night in Nuku’alofa with a dinner reception at the newly re-furbished Tanoa Dateline Hotel, hosted by the NZ High Commissioner Sarah Walsh, which started at the unusal hour of 5 pm – so guests could watch two rugby tests from Eden Park. Tonga acquitted itself well against Wales, to evident relief, and the All Blacks beat Manu Samoa well, to the delight of many Tongans present (more pro-NZ than anti their island cousins). English also swapped named and numbered jerseys with Pōhiva, who turned up to the rugby field opening in track pants and bright green rugby boots – at 76 ready for any English photo-op.
Donald Trump’s America
The US pullout of the Paris accord on Climate Change went down like a poor bowl of kava with the Pacific nations, low-lying atolls at risk of sea level rise and increasing storms.
Premier Puna of the Cooks was diplomatic when asked if Australia and New Zealand ought to have spoken out more strongly, on the Pacific’s behalf, when President Trump pulled the plug: “You are asking me to make a political mistake. I’m sorry I’m not going to do that.”
But he said a UN Oceans conference he had just attended showed America to be isolated – the French (pro-Paris) presentation winning a long ovation.
“A clear demonstration of global unity. America is isolated and other countries are prepared to step up and fill the vacuum.”
He was overlooked by English when the PM acknowledged his ministers at one important function, made worse by the National leader singling out NZ First’s Peters as the most senior politician in the NZ Parliament. English corrected that later but it did tend to raise the question of why Dunne, 100 days away from a great fight to save his electorate seat and future, was playing a bit part for four days around the Pacific.
His dance at the government dinner in the Cooks is best left unreported.
A decision by Labour not to be represented at a high level (it evidently does have elections on its mind) plus a withdrawal by Su’a William Sio and a family bereavement for Pasifika MP Jenny Salesa meant MPs Carmel Sepuloni and Poto Williams had to fly the red flag.
They got on with the job in English’s long blue shadow but it was unfair of him at the High Commission reception in Nuku’alofa to mention the mission had brought an MP of Tongan origin but not say Sepuloni’s name.
Islands’ cellphone and wifi
All three countries have variously poor, inconsistent and extortionately priced mobile phone and internet services. The communication cables to Rarotonga and Niue that New Zealand is helping fund can’t come soon enough – for tourism, for attracting their nationals back, and for local businesses.
Chinese building standards
Major public projects across the Pacific are being funded – and built – by China. The word now though is the host countries are starting to grow wary of the quick builds with poor quality leading to expensive maintenance just a few years into their lives. One administration is considering putting an end to the Chinese buildings and seeking help in other ways.