Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

PM doesn't back down on Tongan travel warning

John Key with Lord Tu'ivakano, prime minister of Tonga. Photo / Claire Trevett
John Key with Lord Tu'ivakano, prime minister of Tonga. Photo / Claire Trevett

Prime Minister John Key kicked off his short visit to Tonga with announcements for funding, but is refusing to back down on a travel warning about a Chinese plane being used in the country and has invoked the Princess Ashika tragedy to defend New Zealand's stance.

Mr Key met Tonga's Prime Minister Tu'ivakano this morning and announced New Zealand was contributing a total of $7 million to revamp the Teufaiva Stadium and rebuild schools on the Ha'apai islands which were destroyed by Cyclone Ian in January.

However, the main topic for Tonga's media at a press conference afterwards was about New Zealand's warning about the MA-60 aircraft used by Real Tonga because of safety concerns last August. It has also suspended tourism funding while the issue was unresolved, upsetting tourism operators.

Mr Key was asked why New Zealand was only taking such action against Tonga, and not other countries that use the same aircraft. The World Bank is currently reviewing the aircraft and some civil aviation experts have challenged New Zealand's stance on it and the World Bank's expertise.

Mr Key said New Zealand would continue to monitor it, but unless the plane was proved to be of a standard sufficient to be certified in New Zealand and comparable countries. he was not willing to take any risks.

"We take our responsibilities very seriously as a donor in the region and to Tonga, to make sure that where we are involved in an area like tourism that both New Zealand citizens and the citizens of any part of the world, including Tonga, are safe if they travel on an aircraft. We all recall with great sadness the death of those on the Princess Ashika." The Princess Ashika sank in Tonga in 2009, taking 74 lives.

He said he knew tourism was important and understood the frustration in Tonga's tourism sector, but if there was an air accident it would have serious, long term implications for tourism in Tonga.

The two Prime Ministers were also asked about aid and low-interest loans from China, which is increasingly overshadowing Tonga's historical donors.

Prime Minister Tu'ivakano was unrepentant about accepting that aid and low interest loans, and said there was nothing wrong with it.

"I guess everybody has noticed China is like the new guy on the block. When you look at small island developing states they are friends with everybody and not enemies with anybody."

He said China had a lot of money and its low interest loans gave small countries an option they could not afford otherwise, which helped development. "The two commercial banks here have very high interest. Nobody in Tonga could loan from the bank. I think if China can provide that for us, I wouldn't say no."

Mr Key said no country had a monopoly on aid and New Zealand had worked constructively with China's aid programme on some Pacific aid programmes.

Mr Key also met with Tonga's King today. He leaves Tonga in the morning to spend a day on Niue before returning tomorrow night.

- NZ Herald

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