Key calls in sport stars for Pacific Islands tour

By Claire Trevett

The Prime Minister has boosted his entourage on a whistlestop "goodwill" trip around the Pacific by inviting sport stars Michael Jones and Inga Tuigamala, a clutch of mayors, church leaders, young people and others from the Pacific Islands community in New Zealand.

The trip on the Air Force Boeing next week will drop into four Pacific Island countries in four days: Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands.

As well as other ministers and MPs, Mr Key revealed yesterday he had filled the plane with others - including Tuigamala and Jones, and Manukau Mayor Len Brown, Porirua Mayor Jenny Brash and Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey - invited because of the large Pacific communities in their cities.

Others included church leaders, business people and a sport delegation.

"We wanted to take a goodwill mission and once we were taking the plane it was better to take a large group. It seemed to be better value for money once we decided to take the Air Force plane and if we hadn't taken that we couldn't cover four countries in four days."

Mr Key said those accompanying him would not pay for the flight, but were expected to meet their own costs for accommodation and other expenses.

Jones and Tuigamala both supported Mr Key in the election campaign.

Tuigamala, who has Samoan and Tongan heritage, said it was an honour to be asked to accompany the Prime Minister.

"When I think about the time my parents migrated here with me and my siblings, who would have known I would be doing the opposite and accompanying the Prime Minister of New Zealand back to the very shores that my parents and I left in the early 70s for a better way of life? I see that as a real privilege."

He said for many of the young people on the trip, it would be their first time back to the islands "so it will be a wonderful, wonderful experience".

Jones laughed when asked if the presence of such well known sport stars would take the limelight away from Mr Key, saying they visited the Pacific Islands too frequently to be a novelty.

"We're just the local boys out there. I think the person they will want to see will be the Prime Minister. We are just there to support him and be part of the broader work going on."

The two former All Blacks will spend much of the trip talking to youth and visiting schools.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples, Foreign Minister Murray McCully and Pacific Island Affairs Minister Georgina te Heuheu will go, as will some of the foreign affairs select committee as part of an inquiry into New Zealand's relationship with the Pacific Islands - the second one since 2007.

Mr Key will meet the King of Tonga, George Tupou V, Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, Niue's Premier Toke Talagi and Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai. He said the Foreign Minister usually made the trip on an annual basis but he had decided to tag along for the first.

"It's an opportunity to get a firsthand experience of countries like Niue, where I haven't been before, or Tonga or the Cook Islands. It's partly to send a message that New Zealand supports the countries in the Pacific. We have a big engagement there."

He said areas the countries' leaders would cover included the impact of the global economic crisis on the Pacific and priorities for the next Pacific Island Leaders' Forum in Cairns next month.

- NZ Herald

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