Wednesday, 8 November 2017

New Zealand is at times an unlikely and certainly uncomfortable colonial overlord. When former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand referred in his speeches to countries of the "realm of New Zealand", his language was often mocked as grandiloquent, which just overlooked the precision of his description. The realm of New Zealand refers to those countries like Niue, the Tokelaus, Samoa and the Cook Islands which were previously New Zealand's island territories prior to gaining their independence in the 1960s and early 1970s. New Zealand, however, still retains defence and foreign affairs responsibilities in respect of these countries. Also part of the realm of New Zealand are Antarctica's Ross Island Dependency, the Bounty, Auckland and Kermadec Islands, and the Chatham Islands.

Of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are probably the most overlooked and taken for granted. Yet of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are the most directly linked to New Zealand, but for many these windswept islands about 750 kilometres to our east are largely ignored - the last place named in the national weather forecast,  just before outlook for tomorrow. (TVNZ does not go even that far - neither any map nor forecast ever features the Chathams in its national weather forecasts!) Yet the Chathams are home to over 600 New Zealanders, with an average annual per capita income slightly higher than in New Zealand and significant fishing and other natural resources, but a number of privations consequent upon living on offshore islands.. Perhaps it is because of their comparative proximity to New Zealand and their self-reliance that they have been left largely to their own devices.

During my time as Minister of Internal Affairs (and settlor of the Chatham Islands Investment Trust) I was able to oversee some progress in improving the Islands' basic infrastructure. In the last two Budgets I secured substantial funding (over $50 million) to rebuild the Islands' main wharf at Waitangi, and to repair and upgrade the wharf at Pitt Island. These wharves are vital transport links, as virtually everything has to be shipped into and out of the Islands. Work was also begun on planning the upgrade of the runway and navigational aids at the airport to accommodate jet aircraft and become less weather dependent. The Chathams' rugged weather means the current air services (performed with amazing efficiency by Air Chathams' noble and extraordinarily durable 1950s  Convairs) are subject to weather cancellations on a reasonably frequent basis - something which jets with more sophisticated technology and improved navigational aids at the airport would reduce to some extent. And that would also facilitate the export of fresh seafood to New Zealand and potentially east coast Australian markets on a faster basis, thus aiding the Islands' economic development. Other issues facing the Chathams include the high cost of energy generation - most energy is diesel generated as, despite its abundance, wind generation has not proven all that reliable, and other sustainable forms of generation are yet to be fully developed. As it stands, energy costs now account for about 35% of most Island household budgets.

Over the years, New Zealand's approach to the Chathams has been haphazard, focusing on problems as they occur, and not looking too far into the future. But they are a part of the realm in just the same way that other countries and territories to whom we provide significant and more frequent assistance are part of the realm. So we need to develop a more focused and co-ordinated approach to dealing with their issues. For that reason, I obtained Cabinet support earlier this year for a review of the Chatham Islands' overall governance arrangements. This had also been advocated by the Chatham Islands District Council, who saw it as an important opportunity to get a much more consistent, integrated approach to the Islands' future development. However, given the history of benign neglect, making progress has not been easy. One senior Minister at the time vowed to me not to support one cent more for the Chathams, while others seemed quite uninterested. There were those who understood the issues fully who were supportive and encouraging, but I still felt the need to prepare what I called a "Chathams 101" paper for their information, to help get the proposal through.

The first stage of the review should have been completed by now, and officials were required to report back to Cabinet in November. While I appreciate that this will not be top of the new government's agenda, it does represent a significant opportunity, which I hope does not end up being passed up, to make rare progress in clarifying and modernising the relationship. The Chatham Islands are an important part of the realm of New Zealand and deserve to be treated as more than just the footnote before the outlook for tomorrow.            
  



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