Bill English and a host of government representatives have spent the last week on the annual jaunt that is the Prime Minister's Pacific Mission. Deputy political editor Claire Trevett goes island-hopping.

This week, Prime Minister Bill English finally got to try out one of the perks of his job - leading a delegation on the RNZAF Boeing. It was English's first such trip as PM and first trip around the Pacific, with a rag-tag pack of MPs.

The tradition is for the PM to travel around three or four islands, sprinkling money about as he or she goes like some kind of Tinker Bell.

For the Pacific leaders it was also the first chance to assess English and (more importantly for some) Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee after eight years of John Key and Murray McCully.


So how did it all go down?



The first signs of the changing of the guard from Key to English comes on the drinks trolley.

The PM's office orders the alcohol that is served with dinner on the RNZAF Boeing.

Key's flights carried Steinlager Pure (Key was more a wine man). This time cans of Speights rattled along the aisle.

It is English's first trip on the Air Force Boeing as Prime Minister and he's in a good mood.

He's just been told the Newshub poll results, and he's off to the Pacific just as a southerly sweeps into Wellington.

The Matavai Resort in Niue, financed with assistance from the NZ taxpayer.
The Matavai Resort in Niue, financed with assistance from the NZ taxpayer.

His mood is only improved when he is told the hungry journalists at the back of the plane will not get to eat until after he has eaten. Any control over the media is good control.

Even the knowledge he will have NZ First leader Winston Peters with him for three days is not enough to dampen his spirits. English did not get to travel much as Finance Minister and rarely travelled overseas for private holidays, partly because of his sizeable family.

Now he's got his own plane (kind of) and is travelling to the Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga. The only one he'd visited before was Tonga, and that was a fleeting visit.

With him are about 10 MPs, community representatives, business people and the aforementioned media.

Heedless of the capacity for journalists to get revenge, he eats very slowly indeed.



The Reefside cafe has the type of special English, a former Finance Minister, likes. "Buy two coffees, pay for both!"

It was the PM's first visit to the Cooks - but the presence of Cook Islands PM Henry Puna was also apparently a novelty for the island. Its Parliament rarely sits and Puna spends so much time travelling that on the first day, the local Cook Island News noted Puna was back for a visit to host English's visit.

It has taken to running a weekly Ministerial travel diary to highlight the amount of time ministers are out of the country.

Despite some local concern about Puna's absences, others say his advocacy in international forums has helped put the Cook Islands on the map.

English is full of praise for his host, in particular his work on the environment, illegal fisheries and trying to get the Cook Islands economy into shape.

English is still getting used to the higher profile of being a PM.

He has a fairly small media pack for such a visit, but nevertheless approaches the stand of microphones with some awe - observing how "impressive" they are and stroking the fluffy microphones.

The media are still keen to get revenge for the starvation on the plane, but English proves to be more wary of a risky photo op than his predecessor, who would do almost anything for the cameras.

When a reporter suggests it would be a great idea for him to run through some slalom sticks with the children at a sports field, English firmly rejects it.

Nor does he take up the offer of a hula hoop.

This is not what the media are accustomed to.

English also sticks to his vow not to dance again after the Samoa experience - he'd said he'd leave it to Peters. But strangely when the time comes for audience participation at a state dinner in his honour, he gets in deep in conversation with someone, and both Peters and Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee are seen sprinting for the back doors.

Urgent phone calls apparently.

It is left to Alfred Ngaro - who as a Cook Islander actually does know how to dance - while others including Peter Dunne, Jonathan Young and Carmel Sepuloni jiggle about a bit.

English is busy tossing out pick-up lines at NZ First leader Peters, starting at the marae, where he singles him out for a special mention because of his seniority.

He wades in again that night - in a rather more obvious fashion. Speaking at a reception he observes the election is coming up and he may have to negotiate with some of those on the delegation - he names Dunne and Peters, but forgets the Maori Party's Marama Fox.

He makes the audience titter by telling them about Dipton: where it was so cold his parents had 12 children.

English isn't a complete killjoy. He winds up his time in the Cooks the traditional way - a few beers at Trader Jacks.

The others are there as well, including Peters, still diligently avoiding being seen near English.

The PM's motorcade hoots its way back to his hotel through the quiet Raro roads at about 10.30pm.



The Boeing leaves Rarotonga in the wee smalls for Niue, the kind of place which manages to win over almost everyone who visits.

Almost the whole population (1600) comes out to greet the delegation - other than those preparing for the show and tell around the island.

Everybody waves when you drive past, and even wee Niue has developed a fair bit over the past 10 years or so.

The delegation is there for the official opening of the extension and conference centre at the Matavai Resort - at the cost of $7.5 million to the New Zealand taxpayer.

It is an important part of Niue's tourism strategy - former Foreign Minister Murray McCully re-focused aid on economic development and English makes it clear he backs that move.

A quick fix for the welcome sign at a primary school. Photo / Supplied via Twitter
A quick fix for the welcome sign at a primary school. Photo / Supplied via Twitter

The resort is picturesque, but was the centre of some recent controversy around a donation from Scenic Hotels' founder, the late Earl Hagaman, to the National Party in 2014.

That ended with Labour leader Andrew Little in court for defamation.

Undaunted, English does his speech. Niue's Premier Sir Toke Talagi can be stroppy but appeared to give English his vote of approval after deciding there would be little change to the approach taken by Key and McCully.

In English's speech we also discover all roads lead to Dipton. He told the Cook Islanders Rarotonga reminded him of Southland, for reasons forgotten.

Today it was Niue's turn.

"It feels quite a long way away and is not always remembered by everybody."

It is Niue that delivers the photo op the media has been waiting for. Finally it is silly hat time.

They arrive at the waka display to discover English, Ngaro and Brownlee sitting side by side in identical grass hats clutching coconuts and being told a local legend about beautiful women and childbirth.

English knows what the media are up to and keeps removing his hat, hoping to escape.

There is no escape. Thank you Niue.

In between it all, English and Peters continue their odd courtship game.

Peters is playing hard to get - he knows everybody is watching so assiduously avoids talking to him or standing close enough for a photo together when the media are around.

English almost blushes when he is asked by media whether the pair have had any quality bonding time on the trip.

He stammers that he has known Peters since the 1990s. No, they have not had deep and meaningful conversations about the future but "it's not hard to guess what's on his mind and my mind.

"It's great to have him on the trip. We get on fine."

The Herald is informed the pair have periodically exchanged courtesies, but little else.

A watched pot never boils.

Peters has spent more time bonding with a uga (crab) than English - he is given a massive live crab to hold at the Matavai and calls out "don't come too close".

That may well have been directed at English.

Marama Fox decides it's all too much and heads to the swimming pool, wine in hand, telling everybody that if she does not get back into Parliament she intends to move to Niue.



After the informality of the Cook Islands and Niue, things take a turn for the formal in Tonga.

It is suits and long skirts all around for a wreath-laying and a visit to the King.

English is in black to acknowledge the 100-day mourning period for the King's mother.

NZ High Commissioner Ross Ardern, PM Bill English, Pacific Minister Alfred Ngaro and Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee in Niue. Photo / Claire Trevett
NZ High Commissioner Ross Ardern, PM Bill English, Pacific Minister Alfred Ngaro and Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee in Niue. Photo / Claire Trevett

He meets Tongan Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva who, after a joint press conference, wanders off with one of the reporter's phones that was on the desk in front of him recording.

The delegation celebrates the last night of the trip watching the Pacific rugby double-header in Auckland - Tonga v Wales and Samoa v All Blacks.

There is a rift in the Peters-English relationship, after Peters accused English of trying to bribe Pacific voters by promising action on super portability if he's still in power after September.

Peters is not the only one questioning the chances of that.

One of English's last appointments is at a primary school. A man is standing on a fence at the gate, sticking up pieces of paper spelling Bill English on to a big Welcome sign to the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

The sign-written words "John Key" can still clearly be seen underneath the "Bill English" letters. Because there is little point investing in a brand new Bill English sign when another prime minister altogether could be in place in three months' time.