We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: Is New Zealand a decent Pacific neighbour?
While writing this column it occurred to me that the Pacific has become part of a cruel ruse on the part of my parents. Growing up for me included a short stint in Murupara and a much longer period in the massive metropolis of Morrinsville. Although I loved living in both, once my sister and I had firmly left home, my parents decided to relocate to a beautiful Pacific island. Cruel.
And that, perhaps, that is how many of us view the Pacific: as our stunning neighbour; the place we visit for a bit of a holiday. But that would be a horrible under-estimation of how important our relationship with the Pacific is and the responsibilities that we have there.
In some respects, it's difficult to determine where our connection in the Pacific begins and ends, such is our link. Take Niue as an example, with a population of 1500 on the island itself, but 20,000 Niueans resident in New Zealand. We are so much more than neighbours, and our role in the Pacific should reflect that. My question is whether or not the government's change in approach when it comes to aid and development allows that to the extent that it should.
Up until a few years ago we had two very separate entities dealing with New Zealand's presence overseas: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which included our diplomatic presence and all trade based work, and the NZAid, which administered all of our overseas aid and development.
The clear separation ensured that both units were tightly focused and that aid was never traded for diplomacy. That all changed when National came into power and Murray McCully took on the role of Minister. The government went against the international trend and merged NZAid back into MFAT but, more than that, they changed the focus of our aid programme from the eradication of poverty to simply "economic development." When 40% of children in Pacific island countries don't complete primary education; clean water and sanitation is poor; health provision is dire and poverty rife, that is a change of priority our neighbours' can ill afford. Of course economic development is important, but it has to be linked to education, and it's very hard to learn when you're sick and hungry.
The test of being a good neighbour has to be partnership. This isn't about us being the patronising brother; it's about identifying issues, it's about what will work and what won't and it's about delivering solutions together. It may sound like common sense, but it's not that long ago that we were helicoptering sheep into the highlands of PNG and trying to grow pine trees in volcanic rock in Samoa because that was the form of economic development we knew so well.
But what we do in the Pacific is one thing, making sure the Pacific itself remains a priority is another. Some of you will have seen that, recently, the Government decided it was a good idea to make a not insignificant contribution to Libya. Don't get me wrong, of course Libya will need to support of the international community during this transitional period and their struggle for peace and stability, but sending millions of dollars from New Zealand to an oil rich nation that until recently has had its freeze on funds lifted by the UN seems a bit odd and has left some unanswered questions, like whether this pledge comes at the expense of the Pacific.
And now for a somewhat more controversial statement: if we step aside from our role, there are other international players ready and willing to pick up the slack. Other countries that have an eye to the Pacific are there, in some cases, for the sake of political expediency and do not necessarily have the best interest of our neighbours at heart. That means we have an even greater responsibility.
We are a Pacific nation and, increasingly, this is where our future lies. Perhaps Colin James said it best when he wrote "New Zealand as a whole is gradually becoming pacificised. We have lived in the Pacific while remaining, most of us, British in our heads. Now we will gradually become Pacific in our heads too." When it comes to becoming a truly great neighbour though, it's time to entrench the Pacific in our hearts too.
Whenever I am door knocking, if I happen to be on the doorstep of a Pacific Island family I have found that they are always warm and friendly. It doesn't matter who they are voting for, I believe there is a warmth of welcome that is intrinsic to Pacific people.
Aucklanders have a good appreciation of the value of our Pacific people, living as we do in a Pacific city with the largest population of Polynesian people in the world. Our city has many people from the Pacific Islands who have chosen to make NZ their home.
In some Pacific communities, we actually have more people living in New Zealand than in their home islands. While there are now a little over 170,000 Samoans living in Samoa - there are over 130,000 Samoan New Zealanders. There are also approximately 100,000 Tongans in Tonga - and over 50,000 Tongan New Zealanders.
The reception of the Tongan rugby team was a pretty good example of the passion, connection and relationships that our country has with Pacific people. The reason that we are so focused on New Zealand's role in the region is simple: we are family and our future is intertwined with the success of our Pacific people.
Our Government's commitment to our neighbours is demonstrated by the refocus of New Zealand's development assistance to the Pacific in the past two years. Today almost 60% of our aid budget goes to the Pacific which reflects our close relationship and our desire to improve the lives of people from the Pacific Islands.
The Pacific Islands Forum that we are hosting in Auckland this week is the main way in which our leaders and governments help work through regional problems, issues and opportunities. We believe that regional problems need regional solutions. We want to ensure that we help the islands to have more sustainable economic development so that they are able to better support their people living at home.
One of the challenges that we have is to use the physical resources of the Pacific in ways that ensure sustainability, protect natural resources, and better ensure that local people can earn a living.
There are several significant economic opportunities for the islands. Tourism is a sector where the Pacific has a competitive advantage with so many beautiful islands which are relatively unspoiled. Each year many New Zealanders take up the opportunity to travel to the islands.
We also need to ensure that the fisheries of the Pacific are better managed in a sustainable and fair manner. Across the Pacific countries around $2 billion worth of fish was taken legally last year. However, sadly at least another $400 million worth was taken illegally, we must address this.
Agriculture is also important with two-thirds of Pacific people depending on agriculture to literally feed their families. The Government has also identified other areas that we consider are very important to the future of our region. In energy, it is concerning that many Pacific countries are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels for power generation.
Diesel and petrol in many Pacific countries costs businesses and households up to two to three times more than it does here. Our own programmes across the region are now giving significant priority to renewable energy initiatives including a large solar plant in
Tonga, in which our Government is investing nearly $8 million to fund construction.
Another important focus for the Pacific is improving the education of our young Pacific people. We do not intend to allow a situation to continue whereby a million school age children around the Pacific do not attend school. Today the Prime Minister announced that New Zealand and Australia are together investing several hundred million additional funding to ensure that more children attend school, and have access to training and scholarship opportunities.
We also need to acknowledge that Climate Change is a major concern for many Pacific island countries. Each day some Pacific people have to deal with rising sea levels that provide real threats to their families and their livelihoods. We are taking a lead role in the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture to help do our bit on climate change. This involves a significant investment in the Global Research Alliance designed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre.
Sustainable economic development is the key to the future of the Pacific. It is important that New Zealand does our bit to help ensure that our Pacific Island neighbours have the support and knowledge to better manage their own resources.
We can only do this if we maintain strong relationships with other Pacific countries. Given how connected our communities are, the success of our country will depend on our ability to help improve the lives of all Pacific people.
Do you have a topic you would like Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern to tackle? Email us.