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By Daniela Maoate-Cox, Radio New Zealand Pacific
On sharp triangles of orange rests small red heilala flowers. They’re tied in a repeating pattern around the necks of the visiting New Zealand MPs who’ve just landed in Tonga.
Tourists would normally arrive dressed for tropical weather, slathered in sunscreen and insect repellent but the heilala kahoa (Tongan lei) rest on shoulders clothed in muted business suits.
The outfits alone indicate this isn’t a normal holiday but five days in Tonga and Fiji surely can’t be that much work?
“Anyone who has spent some time looking at the programme for the delegation would work out it’s not a junket,” says Speaker Trevor Mallard.
A junket, the internet tells me, is “a dish of sweetened and flavoured curds of milk”.
But it also means “an extravagant trip or celebration, in particular, one enjoyed by government officials at public expense” and that's the context it's used in here.
“We regularly have to have bags out at 5:30am or jump on a bus at 5:30am to catch a plane,” he says.
“We do some interesting things. I’m not saying it’s not fun. There are bits of it that are really good but we don’t have downtime.”
In a nutshell, the MPs took part in workshops with their Pacific counterparts discussing climate change, engaging with the public, and increasing the number of women leaders.
They visited a cyclone damaged parliament which New Zealand is helping to rebuild, lunched with Parliament Speakers, attended a breast cancer awareness fundraiser, and visited a housing project which provides homes for people who’d been paying for slum-like housing.
Apples, drugs, and asparagus
About $20million in development assistance a year is provided to Fiji and $21m to Tonga.
So what does New Zealand get out of these relationships?
For starters, we get asparagus, apples, and wine in the Supermarket says Mallard.
“I was involved with setting up temporary employment schemes, back in the time of the [Helen] Clark Government and we are now heavily reliant on those schemes for seasonal labour in New Zealand,” he says.
“Our grape harvest wouldn’t be harvested, our asparagus wouldn’t come in, our orchards would be a disaster without people who prune and pick from the Pacific.”
High prices and low stocks would be noticed at the supermarket if the scheme didn’t exist he says but there are other reasons to keep good relationships.
“We’ve got to understand the communities and have a high level of trust so that when there are issues we can tell each other and we can get on top of them,” says Mallard.
“So that might be in the health area that might be sometimes around attempts to corrupt Pacific Island officials.”
Corruption attempts happen regularly and are evident in what seem to be large amounts of money sent to people who live and work in the Pacific says Mallard.
“It’s a matter of developing relationships so we can talk about that stuff and that way it can also help protect New Zealand. So part of it is having a bit of a security blanket around ourselves in the Pacific,” he says.
New Zealand's High Commissioner to Fiji, Jonathan Curr, says New Zealand’s Pacific presence benefits people in Aotearoa in ways we might not imagine.
“There are some communities back home that have significant problems with drugs, methamphetamines for example, other drugs that come into New Zealand that are sometimes transhipped through the Pacific islands from Asia and other parts of the world.”
Looking beyond the legal borders of New Zealand and treating border security as an issue that needs to be tackled in partnership with Pacific Nations is an important part of the work Aotearoa does says Curr.
“We need to need to work with Pacific nations around issues like trans-national organised crime so that we don’t find those problems coming to New Zealand.”
Doing so stems the flow of drugs into New Zealand he says.
“That’s just one example of how the development programme, and how cooperation between New Zealand government departments and government departments in the Pacific can have a really big impact that has a tangible impact back home as well.”
For Mallard, the fact that New Zealand is a Pacific country needs to be accepted.
“It’s where we’re located,” he says. “Some of us very firmly believe that our parliamentarians have a disproportionate amount of contact with parliamentarians from Europe and don’t always have the best contacts as younger or newer politicians with people in their own backyard”
“I think there are some areas where we have a leadership role and certainly in some of the education and health areas there are things that we can share and help with that can make a big difference to lives in the Pacific.”
“I’m very firmly of the view that we are of the Pacific and we have to be part of the Pacific and for that to work, we’ve got to understand better what is occurring in our neighbouring countries” says Mallard.
It’s all about influence
Being an Influencer lately has meant asking for free ice-cream in exchange for 'likes' but New Zealand is after a different kind of influence.
“One of the primary purposes [of these trips] is to build relationships between countries and between parliaments,” says Curr.
Countries will try to persuade other countries to support democratic values or the ratification of international treaties he says.
“To exercise that influence you need to be able to build relationships with the people that you’re working with.”
“We’ve found that the relationships between parliaments, between legislatures, the law making bodies of our respective countries, are incredibly important and incredibly influential.”
Geographically the Pacific is an important region. It’s surrounded by major powers including China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
New Zealand and Australia are ‘down-under’ in the South-West of the Pacific Ocean and while the two countries work closely together, New Zealand still does things very differently from its neighbour across the Tasman Sea.
So having a representative on location to promote New Zealand’s interests is what a High Commissioner or Ambassador does and there are various reasons for their existence.
“It’s about New Zealand’s prosperity, it’s about New Zealand’s security but it’s also because New Zealand is a good global citizen,” says New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Tonga, Tiffany Babington.
“We want to engage on the international stage but particularly in the Pacific because they are our nearest and dearest neighbours.”
New Zealand's High Commissioner to Tonga Tiffany Babington listens to Youth MPs at a talanoa session in Tonga.
Babington says there’s a focus on outcomes which benefit both countries.
“It’s taxpayer’s money so we have to be accountable for the way that we spend it.”
There’s a saying that “a week is a long time in politics” but many politicians nowadays would shorten that to 24hours. Governments can be in one day and out the next so having good relationships with all types of MPs is sensible forward planning.
In the past New Zealand has been a bit complacent about visiting its Pacific neighbours relying instead on their Pacific counterparts visiting Aotearoa.
The delegation to Solomon Islands and Vanuatu last year was the first time a New Zealand Speaker led a group of MPs to that part of the Pacific.
This trip is the second of what Mallard hopes will become an annual occurrence.
“I think we should make good links between the parliaments of different countries so it’s not just the governments,” he says.
“I think it’s also good to discuss how parliaments work. They work quite differently in Pacific countries” says Mallard.
“[like] how there’s a role to hold governments to account which is done to a certain extent in some Pacific countries and almost not at all in other countries.”
The delegation consists of three opposition MPs from the National Party and two Labour MPs one of whom is Mallard (both Labour MPs belong to a governing party but not the Government).
“We’re not the Government but we can work closely with other MPs from around the Pacific,” he says.
What’s our relationship status with the Pacific?
The emphasis is on the word partnership.
In Tonga, New Zealand’s $21m goes towards strengthening governance like supporting the electoral commission and the rebuild of its parliament, and economic support like targeted assistance to the vanilla industry.
There’s also support to the agriculture and fisheries sector, upgrading the electricity network, education, sports, and addressing the impacts of climate change.
“We have a development programme here but we really want to listen to the needs that they have. One of the strong signals that we have had from the Pacific is that they want us to do more in the climate change space,” says Babington.
“But there’re also other issues that the Pacific is really keen for us to engage in, including exporting more to New Zealand. They want to look at the trading imbalances between New Zealand and Tonga which are very much in our favour.”
2018 figures show New Zealand imports about $4m worth of goods mainly consisting of travel services, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Its exports were worth $72m in the form of travel services, machinery, dairy products, wood, and meat.
“They also see their people as one of their key exports and so they’re looking for labour mobility opportunities for not just semi-skilled labour but skilled labour as well,” says Babington.
About 1800 Tongans participate in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme which allows horticulture or viticulture industries to recruit from overseas. These groups make a large contribution to Tonga’s economy via remittances (money sent home) which make up 37 percent of Tonga’s GDP.
New Zealand also supports the delivery of two sports programmes in Tonga and the delivery of a technical and vocational skills certificate (skills like welding, carpentry, and plumbing).
While in Tonga the MPs visited a primary school where the sports programmes are in place and a high school where the certificate is available to study.
In Fiji the emphasis is also on the word ‘partnership’.
Fiji’ Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem is quick to correct me when I ask about New Zealand’s involvement.
“The clarity here is that it’s not involvement,” he says. “New Zealand’s technical consultants provide technical advice and support.”
“It’s always the call of the host election management body and so far we’ve found that the technical support provided by the experts from New Zealand has been excellent.”
New Zealand’s $21m in development assistance to Fiji has included supporting Fiji’s 2014 and 2018 elections; the first to take place since the 2006 coup d’état led by Fiji’s current Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
A multinational observer group which included 13 New Zealanders declared Fiji’s processes ‘transparent and credible’.
“New Zealand, along with many other OECD nations, has made an international commitment to support the development of other countries,” says Curr.
This includes supporting sustainable development, education and military cooperation.
On this trip the New Zealand MPs visited two projects supported by Aotearoa; the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre which provides support for sufferers and survivors of violence and Koroipita, a housing project which builds cyclone-safe houses with subsidised rent for families in Western Viti Levu.
Was it a holiday?
A different hotel room every night meant there was no chance of a sleep-in.
The days were packed with meetings around tables in conference rooms or in a van while views of beaches and lagoons whipped past the windows.
No one’s feet touched a sandy beach and I didn’t realise I’d forgotten my jandals till a couple of days into the trip.
There’s no chance for shopping or sightseeing although a couple of MPs sacrificed time set aside to change clothes in favour of buying gifts for family and staff back home.
It's definitely not on holiday, but it is a very good job.
The accommodation is top notch and certainly a higher standard than I’d ever book for myself and at every turn the group's needs including food, transport, and safety are all taken care of.
An MP's every action is surrounded with criticism and scrutiny so being away from that (and the party rivalry) makes for a nice change.
But it's also a privilege that they're paid for and one that many New Zealanders will never be able to experience so if the MPs ever forget it, you can vote them out at the next election.
A request for the total cost of the delegation’s journey has been made and will be added to this story as soon as it becomes available..
This is is part of a series on the Speaker-led delegation to the Pacific first published on Radio New Zealand Pacific.
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