Wednesday, 7 March 2018


Every year the Prime Minister leads a delegation of senior politicians from all parties and business leaders on a Pacific Islands tour. This week's Prime Ministerial visit to Samoa, Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands is the 2018 version. Inevitably, there will be those who will dismiss such tours as little more than a junket, a description which is unfair. Having taken part in a number of them over the years, I can confirm that they are a valuable way of strengthening our relationships with the various Pacific Island states, as well as creating mutual business and trade opportunities.

However, this year's visits have the potential to break the mould, especially if the Government's rhetoric of the "Pacific Reset" is to be believed.  Such a reset is certainly overdue. New Zealand and Australia have had long relationships, forged by geography, with the Pacific but which have, at times, been ambivalent and uneasy. It is far more pronounced for Australia than for New Zealand. Australia views itself as much more part of South Asia than New Zealand. For Australia, the Pacific is a geographic nuisance, and, aside from keeping a wary eye on Indonesia and increasingly having to combat the people smugglers coming across the Indian Ocean, it sees its primary role as Deputy Sheriff to the United States in this part of the world. The Pacific States are equally wary, seeing Australia precisely in that role, and therefore not very sympathetic to Pacific aspirations. Historically, New Zealand has had much closer political and people to people relationships (occasional interruptions like the infamous 1970s Dawn Raids notwithstanding) with Pacific states, and therefore is much more trusted. For many of them, we have been the great provider from time to time, and are still the pre-eminent home away from home for many Pacific peoples. Increasingly, over the last forty years, New Zealand has become much more comfortable with its emerging identity as a Pacific nation, and the roles increasing numbers of Pacific peoples are playing in our society.

However, the demeanour of the occasional colonial overlord has been a little harder to shake off. New Zealand aid policy has tended to focus on supporting projects that we have deemed to be good value for Island states, and more recently has been narrowed to focus on what is a good project for New Zealand to be seen to associated with. 

That is not to say that New Zealand and our aid organisations have not done good work in the region over the years - they have and continue to do so - but increasingly and not unreasonably, Pacific states want to be masters of their own destiny, using development  assistance funding to assist them achieve those goals. There have been examples in recent years where those aspirations have clashed with New Zealand's perceptions of what the Islands should be doing, with some awkward situations resulting.

Throw into that mix the growing influence of China and Taiwan in the region, both in terms of their own rivalry and the fear increasing Chinese influence in the region gives rise to in some quarters anyway, and New Zealand's role becomes more critical. New Zealand cannot afford to maintain its traditional approach to its Pacific relationships, because, over time, those states will simply look elsewhere for support, if they feel they are no longer getting what they want from New Zealand.

All of which makes a reset of our Pacific policy that much more appropriate, and is why the new Government's approach is encouraging so far. The challenge will be to strike the right chord for the reset to be effective. It will need to be based on a strengthened partnership of equals between the New Zealand and Pacific Governments, where the focus is on supporting the Pacific Islands Governments to achieve their potential, as they themselves judge it, not always as we tell them. This week's visit will be an important step towards achieving that objective, and why it was vital that the Prime Minister and the leaders of her two support partners be part of the delegation, to gain the confidence of the Pacific's leaders as they embark upon the reset.

The goodwill towards New Zealand, and the close bonds of connection are strong, right across the Pacific. For its part, New Zealand needs to be seen to be working closely with its Pacific partners to achieve mutual social and economic progress. New Zealand's response to the threat climate change poses to low-lying islands and their peoples will be an early test. But, so far, the first signs from this week's visit are that the Pacific Reset is going to be positive all round.     
    



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